CHAPEL HILL — After playing sparingly as a true freshman in 2016, UNC cornerback K.J. Sails had to grow up in a hurry.
On the field, Sails was asked to step into the starting lineup at cornerback. He responded with a team-high 13 pass breakups, good for ninth in the ACC.
Off the field, however, Sails had to grow up even faster. On Aug. 13 of last year, King Jeremiah Sails was born, and, compared to being a father, being on an island against a gunslinging quarterback is smooth sailing.
“He changed my life a lot, man” Sails said of his son, who just turned 1 year old over the weekend. “That’s my world. That’s my boy. That’s my heart.”
Sails quickly became known to Tar Heel fans, who noticed his on-field celebrations. While he promised that his antics and emotion will continue, he’s had to make several changes since King Jeremiah’s arrival.
“Personality-wise, that’s just always how I’ve been,” he said, “being that vocal part of our DBs. That’s my job, and that’s what I’m going to continue to do this season.”
While he’ll still be demonstrative, he probably won’t flirt with as many unsportsmanlike conduct penalties as in the past.
“I’ve matured a lot,” he said. “Me having my son really made me grow up a lot. A lot of things I used to do, I don’t do anymore. I think a lot differently now. I move a lot differently now.”
That’s resulted in better decisions for the junior, who’s expected to be one of the leaders on the Tar Heel defense.
“Watching M.J. (Stewart, currently playing corner for Tampa Bay) last year and learning from him, as well as Donnie (Miles), those boys set the rope high for me. Me taking those young guys under my wing and teaching them what it means to be a Rude Boy (UNC’s nickname for the defensive backs), that’s what it’s all about.”
Leading young players in the DB room and a young child at home, Sails can’t think like a college student anymore — not with so many other people depending on him.
That may be one of the reasons that Sails will be playing in the season’s first four games. Despite the fact that he could certainly have used the money to help with child care expenses, Sails wasn’t one of the 13 Tar Heel players who got suspended for selling their Air Jordan shoes.
“When I got here, at first, my mind was all over the place, coming from where I come from,” he said. “Me having my son — I thank God for that. He made me calm down and think before I do things. Think about him first, before anything else.”
Fatherhood has narrowed Sails’ focus.
“Very narrow,” he said. “Straight and narrow. God, family, football. That’s what I focus on.”
That all changed last Aug. 13.
“God was always first,” he said, “but I’ve put my son first, before football. Family always comes first now. I’ve kind of split it up in that order.”
Football is still important, however, and Sails hopes that another breakout season like last year will put him in position to earn money for his son. The NFL is in the back of every college player’s mind, but for Sails, it’s a little more urgent.
“That’s the main goal — to get to the NFL,” he said. “That’s my No. 1 goal. I’ll get there, but right now, I’m focusing on playing. Right now, it’s about this season, playing with my teammates, focusing on my son and having fun. That’s what it’s all about.”
To prepare for this season, Sails has focused on improving two areas of his game.
“My weight was the biggest thing,” he said. Sails entered UNC at 165 pounds and played at 175 last year. He’s hoping to add another 10 pounds of muscle to help improve his durability.
“I’ve got to get my weight up, and I’m working on my footwork,” he said. “I’m correcting those things and getting better. … The weight’s been hard, but I’m pushing through. I’ve got to stay on it, stay with it. My son’s been my biggest motivation. That’s the biggest blessing in my life. That’s the reason I keep pushing and keep being the person I am every day.”
But no matter what he’s discussing, from the NFL to gaining weight, Sails always seems to come back to his son.
“He’s really changed my life,” he said. “He helped me grow up and understand what it feels like to be a man. I feel like he’s going to continue to make me get better as a person, better as a player, better as a man.”