UNC football makes way for its first true freshman in the starting lineup this season

North Carolina’s defense conducted a walk-through 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, 210-pound freshman from Jacksonville, N.C., 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.

Missing players make room for new talent

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.”

Downplaying his talent in high school

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 enough to earn a Division II scholarship.

He wasn’t wrong, but he’s not the type of player to trumpet his accomplishments. He’s quite the opposite. Pollock said Conley was the type of kid who actually puts down his cell phone to engage in the things that will make him a better player.

“As he was getting recruited, a lot of coaches would call me and say, ‘He’s not answering,’ ‘He’s not responding,’ or ‘Is he even interested?’” Pollock said. “And I’m like, that’s just the type of kid he is.”

Brown said Conley was one of the best athletes on the roster. And in high school, he lined up just about anywhere to take advantage of that athleticism — quarterback, running back, receiver, linebacker and safety. While most schools recruited him as a safety, Washington State wanted him to play receiver.

“He could do a lot of things,” Bateman said. “I mean, I think he could play running back. But his future, really is as a defensive back.”

Ja’Qurious Conley has ‘organic talent’

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.”

Playing the run is the easy part for Conley. He said his biggest challenge at nickel was learning how to cover the Dazz Newsomes of the world. But based on what he’s shown the UNC coaches so far, they are not concerned. It seems to be just another area Conley might be underselling his talent again.

“He’s one of those examples of a kid who came in and just worked and kind of forced us to play him a little bit,” Bateman said. “And I’m excited to see him the next few weeks for sure.”

UNC at Boston College

When: 3:30 p.m., Saturday

Where: Alumni Stadium, Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts

Watch: ABC

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