College Sports

UNC QB, once nation’s top prep player, confident he’ll go from understudy to starter

North Carolina redshirt quarterback Chazz Surratt, left, is competing with LSU transfer Brandon Harris to be the Tar Heels’ starter.
North Carolina redshirt quarterback Chazz Surratt, left, is competing with LSU transfer Brandon Harris to be the Tar Heels’ starter. rwillett@newsobserver.com

Nothing's changed, quarterback Chazz Surratt says, or at least not to him.

To outside observers — fans back in his hometown of Denver, N.C., the local media, his starry-eyed classmates — maybe it seems that way. But since his arrival in Chapel Hill in June 2016, they've seen so little of how he’s evolved as a student-athlete.

“I guess it is a big 180 from the outside view to think about how different your life is,” Surratt said last week in an exclusive interview with the Observer. “But I don’t think of it that way. I’m still the same old me, it ain’t no big deal.”

A year ago, or 14 months to be more exact, Surratt — a redshirt freshman on North Carolina’s football team and one of the favorites to start at quarterback this season — should've been out of his element. He was a high school football prodigy, sure, but one plopped into a new town, a new school and a new team. You wouldn't blame him if he struggled on the field, or with anything else your normal college freshman must adapt to. Say, doing laundry.

Only he didn't struggle. He was quiet at first, but when your mentor is the eventual No. 2 pick in the NFL draft - Chicago Bears quarterback Mitch Trubisky - you could do a lot worse than shut up and listen.

So Surratt did just that, and now it’s paying off. He's primed to replace the “quarterback of the future’’ moniker pinned to him with just “starting quarterback.” Coach Larry Fedora still hasn't said whether Surratt or LSU transfer Brandon Harris will start under center for UNC's opener against California on Sept. 2, but they’ve split time with the first-team offense.

“I do think I should be the starter,” said Surratt, who has an extra year’s experience with UNC’s offense. “I think I’m capable of it. I believe in my abilities. Mentally, I think I have it all there. I think I’ve made good decisions all year, and that was a big point of emphasis.

“I just don’t want to sound like I’m bragging because Brandon is great. We’re all athletic. We all can throw. ... It’s all love.”

High school heroics

Five days. That's all Chazz got for his post-high school summer vacation in 2016. He had to be at UNC in time for summer classes, so instead of any senior beach week or extended trip, he mostly spent his days with buddies on a Lake Norman dock. Days later he was off to Chapel Hill and onto the next chapter of his football career.

As for this new chapter, the hope was it would mirror his last, the one where he picked up high school state records and national accolades with ease. The numbers are astounding: In his senior season at East Lincoln alone, he accounted for almost 5,000 yards of total offense and 66 touchdowns. Surratt, a left-hander, was on pace to set the all-time North Carolina high school record for career total yards before an elbow injury in the state playoffs’ second round nearly derailed him. He filled in briefly in the next round, tossing underhand passes in order to break the record.

And, of course, he did. His 16,593 yards and 229 career touchdowns responsible for topped the marks set by former Florida quarterback Chris Leak, who starred at Independence High in Charlotte. Surratt was chosen Parade Magazine’s national player of the year following his senior season.

Those numbers spoke for themselves, making Surratt one of the state’s most sought-after recruits. But instead of committing to UNC, he originally chose arch-rival Duke.

“I always liked Carolina better, but with the (NCAA) sanctions and everything I didn’t know what was going to go on,” Surratt said.

Even after his commitment, Surratt kept in contact with UNC quarterbacks coach Keith Heckendorf, who he says updated him almost daily on the school’s standing with the NCAA. Eventually Heckendorf persuaded Surratt that everything would be fine. It was all the convincing he needed, and Surratt flipped his commitment to the Tar Heels, traded one shade of blue for another, and set out for where he always wanted to be.

Stuck in his shell

Those first few weeks in Chapel Hill, full of summer classes and freshmen-only practices, were admittedly tough. Surratt buried his nose in his textbooks during the day and in his playbook at night, studying as much for introductory communications courses as he did for Cover 2 defenses. His best lessons, though, didn’t come from books; they came from a teacher, a mentor of sorts.

“I knew we had Mitch, so I wouldn’t be forced to play right away, so I took a seat back and just watched how he did things,” Surratt said of Trubisky. “Being able to be around Mitch every day, seeing how he practiced, how he carried himself, really was a big help for me. I mean he was the No. 2 draft pick, and I got to be with him every day.”

Surratt, then a 6-foot-3, 200-pound freshman, watched from the sideline as Trubisky read coverages and zipped passes to every inch of the field. He was on what he calls “redshirt alert,” meaning he’d likely not play all season barring any catastrophic injuries.

For other heralded high school stars, that sort of backseat role might have stung — not to Surratt. He said he was quiet not because he was discouraged, but because he was a sponge, trying to soak in as much possible.

“I’d heard the hype and I was like, ‘All right, who is this guy?’ ” defensive back Patrice Rene said. “I thought he’d come in and try to be the big guy on campus, but then I met him and if you’d told me that was Chazz, I wouldn’t have known. He was really reserved and kind of kept to himself, didn’t say much at all. ...It caught me off guard.”

That tame front lasted for the summer, but as time passed and freshmen integrated fully with the rest of the team, Surratt came out his shell.

Quarterback Manny Miles, son of former LSU coach Les Miles, started giving Surratt rides every morning to 6 a.m. positional meetings. The first few drives Surratt kept to himself, but that didn’t last long, either. Soon they struck up a friendship, sharing jokes and stories and tips with each other every morning.

“It just took him a little to get out of his shell,” Miles said. “If he doesn’t know you that well he isn’t going to say much to you, so it took him a bit to kind of get out (of his shell), but now he’s just Chazz.”

Maybe it wasn’t intentional, but his growing comfort off the field soon manifested itself on the field. When he first enrolled, Surratt developed a nasty penchant for fumbling. He’d one-hop slant passes, trying to process a million things at once. But then the shaky hands stopped, and his passes found receivers again. He added 15 pounds of muscle to withstand the hits from college defenders, and the pace of play slowed back to normal.

He was growing, perhaps even quicker than he could have hoped.

Comfortable at last

It’s the middle of April, perfect for spring football and final exam prep… or pool parties.

The LUX apartment complex in Chapel Hill always has a gathering at its pool come spring, but not like this Saturday. It was days before the NFL draft, meaning Trubisky, wide receivers Mack Hollins (fourth round pick by the Philadelphia Eagles) and Ryan Switzer (fourth round pick by the Dallas Cowboys) and other professional-bound players were still in town. What better way to celebrate them going away than with cannonballs and a little beach volleyball?

In the midst of these guys, there’s Surratt, no longer the reserved freshman who arrived on campus months earlier. Now there’s Surratt the social butterfly, Surratt the jokester, Surratt the universal friend. He’s even responsible for Jordyn Adams, a highly-touted high school receiver from nearby Cary who UNC could certainly use to fill the void outside.

“He ended up staying with me that night,” Surratt said of Adams, who eventually commited to the Tar Heels. “I got him, and now we’re pretty good friends.”

From the look of things, you’d be forgiven for forgetting how Surratt was when he first arrived. But a full season studying Trubisky, a full year of classes and dorm life, a full winter working with Fedora and the rest of the offense — well, that explains why he seems so comfortable now.

“The one thing about Chazz is that he’s always in his playbook, always walking around with his notebook, even on a Saturday,” Rene said. “He has all the tools to be one of the great quarterbacks the university has seen, so once he gets more comfortable and more consistent I think he’ll be just fine.”

But on top of all the studying and practicing, Surratt returned to his fun-loving ways, the way his close friends say they know him. He and Rene, originally from Canada, discovered their mutual love for Canadian rapper Drake. He played the video game NBA 2K, even taking a ribbing from friends for using the overpowered Golden State Warriors. He’d eat out on Franklin Street, bouncing from Waffle House to Al’s Burger Shack to Artisan Pizza Kitchen. He was, finally, a college kid.

Being a college quarterback just happened to come with it.

‘Why wouldn’t he?’

It’s 9 o’clock on a Saturday morning.

To be specific, it’s August 19, the day of UNC’s third scrimmage. The games are closed to the media, so the public doesn’t really know who performs well or poorly — unless, of course, someone chooses to speak up.

“I had a really good day,” Surratt said. “Threw a couple of touchdowns, and I wasn’t live (or allowed to run or be hit), but I would have broken one (running) for about 50.”

Would have. It’s that athleticism that made Surratt such a threat in high school, and it’s that potential that makes him an enticing option as UNC’s starter. Harris is also known as a dual-threat quarterback, excelling as a runner and passer, and he’s more than proved his agility in his years in Baton Rouge. So what separates them?

“(Chazz) is just as fast as any receiver we have,” Rene said. “His speed... man.”

Then, obviously, there’s that passing part of being a quarterback. At open practice days after the scrimmage, it was evident Surratt has come a ways since his days of bouncing passes off the grass.

He threw accurately on the run during drills, and with enough velocity to put the ball anywhere on the field. Harris is known for having a strong arm, and his experience would be helpful if he wins the starting job, but it was Surratt leading his receivers with each toss.

“I’m real proud of him,” Heckendorf said. “He’s really grown in terms of his knowledge, in terms of his decision-making, and in terms of his command on the field. But it’s just like anything, we’re never going to be satisfied with where he’s at.”

The last time UNC faced a quarterback dilemma like this one, back in 2014 with Trubisky and Marquise Williams, Fedora kept his decision secret until game time of the opener. Williams, the former Mallard Creek High standout, later admitted he won the job weeks earlier.

Fedora has said publicly that no quarterback — Surratt, Harris, or even former backup Nathan Elliott — has separated himself. Maybe that’s the truth and he’s still waiting. Maybe he’s made his mind up and just doesn’t want to share.

But what can be said is that Surratt has earned the trust of his teammates and coaches. He’s displayed the skills that brought him so much success at East Lincoln.

“He’s one of my boys on the team, so I want him to start. I want him to get the job,” Rene said. “We talk about it a lot. I mean, why wouldn’t he? He can run, he can throw. After everything he did in high school, he’s prepared himself.”

Back at open practice, Surratt darted from drill to drill, his green quarterback jersey standing out amongst a sea of navy and white ones. He stood with Fedora as Harris threw, studying his competition like he once did Trubisky. They’re friends off the field, but both understand what’s up for grabs, and neither wants to cede anything.

“We haven’t been told anything,” Surratt said. “The only thing we know is to be prepared to start and play September 2.”

When practice finally ends, nearly the whole team disappears into the tunnel and then the locker room. A few defensive backs stay at the jugs machine, and a few receivers remain to practice their routes. Surratt stays too, even if not for long, walking from group to group to check on everyone. It’s something a leader would do. Something a starter would do.

Eventually, Surratt also runs into the tunnel. Come Sept. 2, we’ll wait to see if he runs back out.

Brendan Marks: 704-358-5889, @brendanrmarks

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