UNC safety Tre Boston, recipient of many "butt chewings," vows secondary will be better

acarter@newsobserver.comAugust 26, 2013 

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UNC safety Tre Boston (10) works on his defensive technique during the Tar Heels' practice on Thursday September 28, 2011at Navy Field in Chapel Hill, N.C.

ROBERT WILLIETT — 2011 NEWS & OBSERVER FILE PHOTO Buy Photo

— Remind Tre Boston of the plays he made last season, like his four interceptions, and he might smile in an attempt at modesty, nod his head and say “yeah, a couple,” as if those plays were no big deal. That was his reaction recently when he thought back to last season.

Boston, a senior free safety at North Carolina, also missed a lot of plays. He might have been in the wrong position, or have taken an incorrect angle. He might have been trying to do too much on his own. Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning often reminds him of those moments – the ones in which Boston failed.

Koenning was talking last week about the defense and what it would take for it to improve entering UNC’s season opener Thursday night at South Carolina. Koenning kept coming back to Boston – criticizing his leadership ability in one moment, saying “I love him to death” in the next, lauding his potential in another while in the same thought threatening to bench him.

“There’s no reason why he shouldn’t be a guy that can be (among) some of the top in the country in interceptions and tackles,” Koenning said. “And he can be one of the better players at his position. Or he can stand over on the sideline.

“It’s really his call. You know, we had a Saturday scrimmage and there were three plays he cost us points. We can’t have those. He can’t do those.”

Boston is one of three returning starters in the secondary, a unit that has more experience than any other position on the defense. Whether that’s a good thing, though, remains to be seen. The secondary might have been UNC’s most frustrating position a season ago.

Boston and his teammates produced decent enough numbers – UNC’s 16 interceptions tied for 20th nationally – but the Tar Heels allowed more plays than they made. Coverage breakdowns and miscommunication plagued UNC, which ranked 83rd nationally in pass defense.

“They were just miscommunications,” junior cornerback Tim Scott said of the problems in pass coverage. “Half of the defense thought we were playing one call, and half of the defense thought we were playing another. So we definitely took the initiative to talk more this offseason … even when we’re watching film in the film room, we just talk to each other and make sure everybody’s on the same page.”

Some of the problems a year ago were to be expected. It was the first season in UNC’s 4-2-5 defense. The scheme and terminology were entirely different from the season before. Even so, that doesn’t explain everything.

Boston perhaps best personified UNC’s struggles in pass defense. He had a team-high 86 tackles and four interceptions – and returned one for a touchdown in a lopsided victory at Virginia – but his knack for allowing big plays flustered Koenning and the rest of the coaching staff.

“I thought I knew the plays better than I did,” Boston said. “And it’s very true. And I look at myself on film (from last year) every day and I think, wow, Tre, what are you doing? And it’s one of those things, I would kill myself sometimes. And this year, I’ve really buckled down.”

Despite his lack of discipline last season, Boston earned preseason All-ACC honors in July at the ACC’s annual football kickoff. He was one of only two UNC defensive players to receive that distinction.

Koenning brought up the award during a position group meeting with the rest of the safeties. In front of Boston and his teammates, Koenning said he told the players Boston “was given something,” and what will be important is how he uses it.

“Tre was given something that not everybody has,” Koenning said of the preseason All-ACC honor. “And you know, I want for him, for that to happen, for him to take advantage of that. And that’s why I’m on his tail so hard. I feel bad for him sometimes, but I’m on him hard, now. …

“I think I probably need to back off a little bit.”

Boston doesn’t seem to mind the criticism. Like Eric Ebron, the Tar Heels’ jovial tight end, it’s difficult for the coaching staff to dampen Boston’s light mood.

It hasn’t been for lack of effort. Koenning, describing Boston’s leadership ability, could only say “Tre is still a little bit Tre, so he doesn’t get taken seriously.”

“Tre gets his daily four or five butt chewings from me,” Koenning said. “It makes it hard for him to lead because everybody else is seeing him getting butt-chewed for doing his own thing.”

Yet Boston has insisted that he does take seriously the coaching, and the direction Koenning has attempted to provide.

“When I get on the field and I make plays, he loves it,” Boston said of Koenning. “But it’s just one of those things where he doesn’t play me and coach me for my play-making ability. He coaches me to do the best that I can with my technique and discipline.”

In addition to Boston, Scott and Jabari Price, a senior cornerback, are the other returning starters in the secondary. The strong safety position, the one beside Boston, is still undecided, and might be until after UNC’s final preseason practice Wednesday.

Even with that unknown, the secondary is among the most experienced units on the team. Those experiences haven’t been all good. Boston acknowledged the missed assignments and missed tackles. He had his share of those.

Yet like Koenning and coach Larry Fedora, Boston is hopeful defensive improvement will come as a result of experience. Those “butt chewings,” as Koenning described them, might have provided some inspiration, too.

“It’s just one of those things that’s in our DNA now,” Boston said of understanding the defense. “It’s just one of those things that everybody believes and trusts in. And you’ll see us (play) way better.”

Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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