North Carolina cornerback Storm Duck changed numbers this season, and it may prompt fans to ask, “Who’s this?” because he has missed so many games the past two seasons.
Duck played in just a combined eight games the past two years because of an array of injuries that kept him sidelined. The Tar Heels sorely missed his presence after a promising freshman campaign in 2019 in which he played in every game and started nine.
Duck, who switched jerseys from No. 29 to No. 3, even missed the start of fall camp for undisclosed reasons, but he said he’s ready to play in the Heels’ season opener on Aug. 27 against Florida A&M. He enters this season confident he can return to form when he was considered the best cover corner on the Heels’ roster.
“Obviously, over the last few years it’s been hard, but I’m over that hump now,” Duck said. “I’m feeling mentally 100 percent confident, physically 100 percent confident since I got back started playing.”
The last time Duck was truly confident was at the beginning of his sophomore year. He ended his freshman year on high note, with a pick-6 interception return against Temple in Carolina’s Military Bowl win.
The talk of a potential NFL future for Duck was prevalent as he started the 2020 season. But he suffered a lower-body injury in the fourth quarter of UNC’s win at Boston College in the second game of the season and missed the Heels’ remaining 10 games.
Last season, he didn’t make his debut until the third game against Virginia, which turned out to be too soon. He said at the time that he wasn’t totally comfortable physically doing all the things he needed to do to be a top corner.
So he sat again for five more games. Duck said that was his lowest point, before being able to return to action against Wake Forest. He’d have a crucial fourth-down stop late in the game that helped Carolina eek out a 58-55 win. That play helped with his confidence as he appeared in the final five games of last season.
“The beginning of the season last year, missing that first half definitely was hard on me,” Duck said. “The main thing was just staying positive and not getting down and not letting it affect me and not letting it affect how I act because it’s a new day, a new challenge, new opportunity.”
Duck is putting in the work like someone who appreciates having another chance. He’s staying after practice to get more reps, watching more film to master route concepts and working on his “eye discipline,” which he says is critical under new defensive coordinator Gene Chizik’s scheme.
Duck has even spent time at the “Star” position, which is what Carolina labels its nickelback who covers slot receivers. It’s the typical “crossover training” that Carolina has done at just about every position to ensure its players can line up in multiple positions if injuries and attrition force the issue.
UNC is still not at full strength in the secondary as safety Ja’Qurious Conley won’t be available for the season opener and cornerback Dae Dae Hollins is just on the precipice of returning.
Duck’s main place will be on the outside corner. Coupled with junior Tony Grimes on the other side, Carolina believes it could have the best cornerback duo in the ACC. At the very least, Duck said the entire secondary will be much improved.
“Guys are locked in and you can see a visible difference from last year to this year,” Duck said. “Just how guys are competing. How serious guys are studying the playbook and studying different teams and coming out here getting extra work after practice, after meetings, after lift. I mean, that’s a real big difference.”
If Duck can stay healthy, he could be a big difference for UNC, too.