The number of guys who can start at quarterback for a Division I football program is pretty low. So, too, is the group that can say they started at linebacker at the FBS level.
But for Chazz Surratt to have done both in the past two seasons?
“There aren't many people that walk the earth that have the combination of skills that he does,” North Carolina defensive coordinator Jay Bateman said.
Through five games — his first at linebacker since his freshman year at East Lincoln High School — Surratt is third on the Carolina roster with 34 tackles, tied the lead in tackles for loss (five) and passes broken up (three) and second in sacks (three) and hurries (four).
It’s been a meteoric rise for a player whose transition to the position wasn’t viewed as a sure-fire success.
“In the spring and early fall, watching film, you could definitely tell, ‘This kid has played QB; we’re not so sure if this man is going to be able to play linebacker for us,’” fellow linebacker Jeremiah Gemmel said. “As we got deeper into fall camp, we started seeing film, like, ‘Hey, this kid is starting to get it.’ He’s really smart; he played QB so he knows coverages, he knows what the QB is looking for and that’s really great for us. I’m so proud of how far he’s came, because at first we were really worried.”
Surratt initially wasn’t a starter, but ended up atop the depth chart for the season-opener vs. South Carolina due to the suspension of Dominique Ross.
All he did that day was lead the Tar Heels with 12 tackles while also getting a sack, tackle for loss, pass break up and a hurry.
Surratt has kept himself in the three-player, two-spot rotation at inside linebacker with Jeremiah Gemmel and Dominique Ross since then. It hasn’t been perfect — just as anyone would expect from a player learning a new position on the fly — but it has been productive with Surratt’s feel for the position trending up.
He clearly took a huge step forward on Saturday against Clemson with seven tackles — two for loss — three hurries, two break-ups and a sack. Not only did his performance earn praise from teammates and coaches, but he had the highest Havoc Rating in the game according to advanced stats from Bill Connelly of ESPN.
The only hint of his previous life as a quarterback is his constant deflection of praise to everyone else.
“I’ve never heard of that statistic,” Surratt said, smiling. “It was a good day as a defense, we played well, played hard, played good assignment football. It sucks we didn’t win but I think we can build on it as a defense.”
Mack Brown said plenty, though.
“Chazz had a great game,” he said on Saturday night. “It was as good of linebacker play as I've seen in a long time. So, I'm really, really proud of him, and you know, he should get better every week. I mean, everything that happens to him is new in his life because he's never done any of this before.”
Part of getting to that performance was getting the little bit of quarterback he had left inside out, as Bateman pointed out the biggest area of improvement he’s seen from week to week.
“Probably the consistency of physicality,” Bateman said. “I think when you're a quarterback, you can hand the ball off, and throw a hitch, and just kind of hang out, and I think he's learned at linebacker, every snap is a fistfight.”
That’s not to say that he’s thrown away his experience as a quarterback, and instead, it’s become a valuable part of his success.
“He understands, ‘Okay, in this coverage. Where should the ball go?’ I have those conversations with him all the time,” Bateman said. “‘Hey, when you were playing quarterback, if you saw this coverage, where would you throw it?’ ‘I would throw it there.’ ‘Okay, so let's go cover that guy,’ and that makes sense to him.”
Upon hearing that Bateman said there were few people on earth with his abilities, Surratt got sheepish.
Of course, he wanted to give everyone else credit.
“I think I’ve got a lot of speed, I think I’m strong and I’ve got really good teammates, too,” he said. “That helps. I’ve got Gemmel and D-Ross out there playing with me, so I’ve got guys out there that I trust, they’re going to be in the right place. I’ve just got to do my 1-(of)-11.”