The Charlotte Observer - - SPORTS -

North Carolina’s defense con­ducted a walk­through early on dur­ing fall camp just to go over which play­ers had what re­spon­si­bil­i­ties. And to pre­pare them men­tally for how the scheme should be ex­e­cuted.

It’s not gen­er­ally the time when a fresh­man finds a way to stand out, yet, fit­tingly Ja’Qu­ri­ous Con­ley made a name for him­self.

“Coach (Mack) Brown grabbed me and said, ‘You know that one there’s a lit­tle dif­fer­ent,’” co-de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Jay Bate­man said Mon­day on a video con­fer­ence with the re­porters. “Early on, we re­al­ized that we had to find a way to get him on the field.”

Con­ley, a 6-foot, 210pound fresh­man from Jack­sonville, will be the first true fresh­man to start for the No. 12 Tar Heels this sea­son as they travel to Bos­ton Col­lege on Satur­day. Con­ley will play nickel back as ju­nior Trey Mor­ri­son moves over to strong safety. Mor­ri­son re­places Myles Wol­folk, who was de­clared aca­dem­i­cally in­el­i­gi­ble ear­lier this month.

When Con­ley got the news, he called his mother on Face­Time. Mar­quita Con­ley isn’t a big foot­ball fan and he said she didn’t really un­der­stand what it meant for him to be in the start­ing lineup.

“I was very emo­tional,” said Con­ley, who said by the time his dad, Ter­rell, jumped on the call to re­mind him to stay fo­cused, he and his mom were both in tears.


Con­ley was bound to at least play spe­cial teams this sea­son as a way to get him ac­cli­mated to the col­lege level. Then play­ers ahead of him on Carolina’s depth chart started depart­ing.

D.J. Ford, who made starts at nickel back and strong safety last sea­son; and Vir­ginia Tech trans­fer Bryce Watts, who was ex­pected to com­pete for a start­ing spot in the sec­ondary; both opted to sit out be­fore the sea­son started. The reshuf­fled lineup to fill the Wol­folk void paved the way for an op­por­tu­nity Con­ley didn’t en­vi­sion hap­pen­ing this sea­son.

“Hon­estly, I didn’t even think I’d play my fresh­man year,” Con­ley said on a video call with the me­dia. “I told my coaches in high school, I was ready to be like a red­shirt fresh­man. I was ready for this year to be just a year for me to start learn­ing ev­ery­thing and then (se­cond) year I come in and try to get on the field.”


Con­ley is in­deed dif­fer­ent. He has a ten­dency to down­play his ta­lent. His fam­ily moved to North Carolina from Wash­ing­ton state be­fore the start of his ju­nior year of high school. He was the quiet, new kid on North­side High School when head coach Ken­dall Pol­lock said they had a con­ver­sa­tion about what he wanted to do with foot­ball. Con­ley, Pol­lock told The News & Ob­server, thought he was good

The Heels believe Con­ley is a nat­u­ral fit for their need at nickel back be­cause his speed al­lows him to run with slot re­ceivers, but his size al­lows him to step up in run sup­port. Linebacker Jeremiah Gem­mel told re­porters on a video call that Con­ley wasn’t afraid to get phys­i­cal.

“It was just his or­ganic ta­lent that we saw on the first cou­ple of days with­out even really know­ing like the schemes,” Gem­mel said. “He’s got really good speed at the point of at­tack. That’s some­thing we really need at that nickel spot — some­one who can cover but also go and fit the run.”

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