With senior starters out due to injuries, UNC needs its younger players to step up

After losing two key starters last week to injuries— one for the season, and the other “indefinitely” — North Carolina is going to have to rely on its younger players to step up.

UNC senior cornerback Patrice Rene suffered a torn ACL this past Saturday against Miami and is out for the season, UNC coach Mack Brown confirmed on Monday. Senior center Nick Polinio suffered a lower body injury and is out indefinitely.

Rene, who’s 6-2 and 208 pounds, was UNC’s top cornerback entering the 2019 season. He started all 11 games during the 2018 season and finished with 31 tackles, two interceptions, five pass breakups and a fumble recovery.

He had five tackles against Miami, and six for the season.

“As excited as we are about the win, we’re disappointed for Patrice Rene because he’s worked so hard,” Brown said in a press conference on Monday.

Rene showed up to training camp in early August wearing a hard hat, a construction vest and goggles. He said 2019 would be “about business,” and he planned to have a big season in 2019. He wanted to be named to the All-ACC team at the end of the season.

Rene injured his knee in the first half against Miami and did not return. Brown said the injury occurred on a goal line play in the first half when he made contact with teammate Myles Wolfolk.

Brown said Rene will be eligible to return for a fifth season if he desires. He is expected to graduate in December and could decide to try for an NFL career.

“We do want him back if he wants to come back,” Brown said Monday.

Rene tweeted about his injury late Monday morning.

“I know for a fact that I will be able to come back better than ever,” Rene tweeted.

Replacing Patrice Rene

Sophomore cornerback Tre Morrison will likely step up Friday against Wake Forest as UNC’s No. 1 cornerback. Junior Greg Ross will move in as the No. 2 at the position. And UNC freshman Storm Duck will be No. 3.

Through the first two games of the season, Wake Forest has two receivers — Sage Surratt (203) and Scotty Washington (204) — with at least 200 receiving yards.

Washington is 6-5, 225 pounds, while Surratt, the younger brother of UNC linebacker Chazz Surratt, is 6-3, 215 pounds.

Subscribe to the N&O's Sports Pass for UNC coverage

Get top-notch coverage of UNC sports from Jonathan Alexander, Luke DeCock and Robert Willett. Sign up for The N&O's digital sports-only subscription for only $30 per year.

Morrison, at 5-10, 190 pounds, played well against Miami, a week after suffering a concussion on the first play of the game against South Carolina on Aug. 31. He finished Saturday’s game with two pass breakups. He was targeted six times and allowed three catches for 36 yards.

UNC defense coordinator Jay Bateman seemed confident that Ross, who is 6-foot, 188 pounds, and Duck, who is 6-1, 180 pounds, would step up.

“Greg Ross has played really well,” UNC defensive coordinator Jay Bateman told the media Monday. “He’s played a lot of games here. I think Storm Duck is really talented young kid. He got thrown in the fire that first game and did really well.”

Replacing Nick Polino

Polino, who is 6-3, 305 pounds, suffered a lower body injury when he had his leg rolled up on late in the first quarter. He started in all 11 games for the Tar Heels in 2018, and appeared in all 12 games in 2017 at guard. He moved over to center this season.

Brown said he hopes Polino will be able to return before the end of the season.

In the meantime, sophomore backup center Brian Anderson, who took some first team snaps at center in training camp, will replace Polino. Anderson, who is 6-2, 302 pounds, also played some against South Carolina.

“It’s just next man up,” UNC offensive coordinator Phil Longo told the media Monday. “Brian came in two weeks ago for the two 90-yard drives...Right now we’re just prepping the two and the three, and we move up and move on.

“That’s not out of disrespect to Nick, he did a phenomenal job and he’s a leader on our football team, so we’ll miss him. But in the meantime, we’ve got to move on to the next guy.”

The Tar Heels struggled to get the running game going last week. They had 100 yards on 35 carries.

After Polino’s injury, the Tar Heels seemed to struggle move the ball. They had five yards of total offense in the second quarter against the Hurricanes.

On both sides of the ball, the Tar Heels will look to their younger players to pick it up.

“We told the freshmen this morning, you’re going to have to pick it up,” Brown said Monday. “You’re no longer rookies. You’re going to have to play.”

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer

Jonathan M. Alexander has been covering the North Carolina Tar Heels since May 2018. He previously covered Duke basketball and recruiting in the ACC. He is an alumnus of N.C. Central University.
Support my work with a digital subscription