Chazz Surratt’s crooked path to linebacker

Former UNC quarterback moves to defense

Chazz Surratt was frequently injured when he was playing quarterback for the Tar Heels, but the junior plans to deliver hits with a move to linebacker this season. (Wilfredo Lee / AP Photo)

CHAPEL HILL — Tap tap tap.

Chazz Surratt clearly doesn’t want to be talking about this again.

As the media crowds around him at UNC preseason camp, he stares straight ahead, rocking back and forth, the picture of discomfort. The clenched fists of the former four-star recruit and starting quarterback for the Tar Heels tap out a beat on the backdrop behind him as he answers all the same questions again about giving up the position to play linebacker.

Tap tap tap.

“Yes, having played quarterback gives me a different perspective on what we’re doing on defense. Yes, I think it helps.”

Tap tap.

“I’ve gained about 15 pounds. I’m up to 230. … Basically by eating a lot of extra meals.”

Tap tap.

Eventually — not soon enough for him — the group around Surratt moves on to the next UNC player brought to the interview area. He gets one last question from a straggler.

Do you miss it?

The tapping stops. Surratt’s eyes light up and he turns to make full eye contact for the first time.

“Yeah, man.”


It’s easy to assume that Surratt regrets his decision to switch to the other side of the ball — that he looks at the three freshmen currently competing for the UNC quarterback job and wishes he could be there. These last few years, however, nothing with Chazz Surratt has been easy.

The wistful regret doesn’t come from his decision last spring, however, but from the circumstances that made it necessary.

Surratt arrived as the Tar Heels’ quarterback of the future, one of the highest-rated passer recruits of the Larry Fedora era. After redshirting a year, he started seven games as a freshman, passing for 1,342 yards and eight touchdowns, while dazzling fans with his footspeed — his five rushing touchdowns were second-most on the team.

Surratt battled injury all season, however, getting knocked out of the Virginia Tech and Miami games and missing most of the final month of the season.

Last year, he started the season serving a suspension after he and several teammates sold team-issued shoes for a profit. Almost as soon as he finally got on the field, he suffered a season-ending wrist injury, then watched as two other Fedora recruits — Jace Ruder and Cade Fortin, both currently competing for the 2019 starting job — moved past him in the pecking order.

He needed to make a change and, for a time, considered transferring. Instead of choosing a new college home, however, he found a new home on the Tar Heel field.

Instead of choosing a new college home, however, he found a new home on the Tar Heel field.

With his speed, Surratt was a fit for any number of positions, including receiver, where his brother Sage is currently a rising star with Wake Forest, or running back.

Surratt didn’t want to play another position on offense though, where he’d be depending on the guy manning his old spot, calling the shots.

“Really, at receiver, you’ve got to wait on the ball,” he said. “You’ve got to get it from somebody. Running back, same thing. You’ve got to get a play called (for you).”

Instead, he chose linebacker — a position where he’d be seeking out contact instead of trying to avoid it. It’s an intriguing choice for a player who was injury-prone at quarterback.

“I talked to Coach Thig (UNC co-defensive coordinator Tommy Thigpen) and said I wanted to play linebacker for him,” Surratt said. “He was willing to let me come play for him.”

At that spot, he won’t need to wait for someone to give him the ball. He needs to go get it from someone trying their best not to give it up.

“At linebacker, you’ve got to do this on your own, within the defense,” he said. “You’ve got your own fair shot out there to do what you want.”

It was Thigpen’s first time fielding a request from a quarterback to play on his defense. He had some concerns.

“Just contact,” Thigpen said. “Will he put his face in the fight? Every play is some type of contact — getting off a block or putting your face mask on a running back or quarterback. Then it’s just the intensity of the game, playing in space, ball pursuit. At quarterback, you throw the ball, then you relax. Whereas on our side of the ball, somebody throws the ball and it’s all flames to the ball.”

Surratt has a new scar underneath his eye, showing that he hasn’t been shy about sticking his face in the fight.

“I would say the mindset is totally different from playing quarterback,” he said. “You have to bring it every day. You’ve just got to play pissed off. Really, that’s it. You just think about things that piss you off and go out there and bring it.”

Things like last season?

“Yeah. But I really don’t want to talk about that out loud. It’s different stuff — criticism, things that go on. I’m doing whatever I can to push myself.”

Still, he misses his old spot, taking snaps from center and dictating the offense.

“But it’s fine,” he said. “I’m trying to do what’s best for the team.”

His fists tapped the backdrop again as he said it, but overall, Chazz Surratt seems to be on the right path, whatever circumstances brought him there.

“I think he’s really happy,” Thigpen said. “I think so. And that makes me happy.”