Countdown to College Football Kickoff: Top NFL prospects at North Carolina

Nov 30, 2019; Raleigh, NC, USA; North Carolina State Wolfpack running back Zonovan Knight (24) is tackled by North Carolina Tar Heels linebacker Chazz Surratt (21) during the first half at Carter-Finley Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

Rob Rang

College football is scheduled to return Saturday, August 29. Each day until then, will be evaluating the rosters of the best teams in college football, including all 64 within the Power Five conferences.

North Carolina Tar Heels

Head Coach: Mack Brown (second season)

2019 Record: 7-6

2020 NFL Draft Picks: Charlie Heck, OT, Houston Texans – Fourth Round, No. 126 overall

Jason Strowbridge, DL, Miami Dolphins – Fifth Round, No. 154 overall

Overview: In one of the more heartwarming stories in sports a year ago, legendary coach Mack Brown came out of retirement and guided the Tar Heels to an improbable 7-6 record, including a resounding 55-13 thumping of Temple in the Military Bowl to cap the campaign.

Barely over .500 would not qualify as a reason to celebrate at many programs, but it is important to acknowledge that the Tar Heels had sunk in recent years, going a combined 5-18 the previous two seasons under former head coach Larry Fedora. Further, qualifying for a bowl game at all last year appeared unlikely after UNC was stunned early on by Appalachian State and dropped back to back conference games to Virginia and Pittsburgh in late November, dropping their record to 4-6.

Showing the resiliency and inspiration which helped him win a national title at Texas, Brown and his Tar Heels engineered quite a turnaround over the final three games, however, blasting Mercer (56-7), rival North Carolina State (41-10) and Temple by a combined score of 152-30.

While Brown’s ability to motivate clearly played a key role, so too did UNC’s unique talent at quarterback – both in true freshman sensation Sam Howell, the ACC’s Rookie of the Year, as well as former starter Chazz Surratt, who made a switch to outside linebacker last year look easy and heads the Heels’ list of top returning NFL prospects.

Featured 2021 NFL Draft Prospect: Chazz Surratt, OLB, 6-2, 230, 4.60, rSR

A microcosm of UNC’s improbable rise last year, Surratt emerged as one of the country’s most intriguing outside linebacker prospects after starting spring competing with Howell at quarterback. His willingness to change positions at all is noteworthy as Surratt signed with the Tar Heels as a local legend, racking up more yards (16,593) and touchdowns (229) as a prep than any other player in state history, earning not only the Gatorade State Player of the Year for North Carolina but the Parade National Player of the Year as a senior.

After redshirting his first year on campus, Surratt played in nine games at quarterback in 2017, starting seven times and leading the Tar Heels with 1,342 passing yards with eight touchdowns against just three interceptions. Surratt was also productive on the ground, running for another 210 yards and five scores.

Surratt’s 2018 season hit the skids before it even began. He was one of 13 UNC players suspended for at least one game due to a shoe-selling scandal with Surratt sitting out the first four games of the year. When he did get on the field, it wasn’t pretty, with Surratt completing just one more pass (four) on the season than he threw interceptions before suffering a thumb/wrist injury which ended his year early.

Confident in his own athleticism and recognizing both the glut at quarterback and the fact that UNC needed bodies at linebacker with Cole Holcomb moving on to the NFL (Washington), Surratt approached the Tar Heels coaching staff about the possible position switch.

As you can see in the video below, Brown was among those who questioned whether the switch would work.

Surratt started the season opener against South Carolina and immediately rewarded the faith of his coaching staff, leading the Heels with 12 tackles, with a seven yard tackle for loss, a QB hurry and a pass breakup, as well. He’d get better as the season went on, ultimately leading UNC in tackles (115) and tackles for loss (15) while finishing a half-sack behind Tomon Fox’s team-leading seven quarterback takedowns. Surratt’s breakout play captured the attention of the ACC’s coaches and media, as well, which named him First Team all-conference and the runner-up to Isaiah Simmons as the league’s Defensive Player of the Year.

Needless to say, scouts are excited to see if Surratt can build off of this success in Year Two.

Strengths: Lanky but athletic frame with room for an additional 10-15 pounds of muscle without likely losing any of his NFL-caliber athleticism, which absolutely jumps off the tape. Surratt shows good initial quickness and is a smooth accelerator, though it his closing burst which really will have scouts excited. He possesses the straight-line speed to beat backs to the edge, chasing down some opponents from behind. While still learning the nuances of defeating blocks, Surratt compensated last year with his physical tools, using his long arms to keep blockers at bay, as well as his agility and closing speed to always be around the ball. His closing speed was perfectly utilized by UNC last year, which frequently sent him on delayed blitzes to affect the quarterback.

One wouldn’t know that Surratt, himself, is a former quarterback with his physical and aggressive playing style, as well. He takes on blockers with vigor and is a thumper of a tackler who drives through contact to knock back ballcarriers when he can. Athletic bloodlines. Brother, Sage, is a standout wide receiver at Wake Forest and also an NFL prospect, catching 11 touchdowns as a redshirt sophomore last season.

Weaknesses: Given his relative inexperience, it should surprise no one that Surratt remains very much a work in progress from a fundamental and frame perspective. He is hyper aggressive against the run, attacking would-be blockers with a bull in a china shop mentality that appeared more about creating havoc than having much of a plan. Surratt’s aggressive pursuit angles resulted in some splashy plays but he left his teammates vulnerable when attacking the wrong gaps or spinning away from blocks rather than taking them out, at times. Surratt’s over-aggression also made him vulnerable in coverage as too often he was sucked up by play-action. In terms of his frame, Surratt needs to continue to get bigger and stronger, including with his grip as NFL runners will rip through some of the arm tackles he was able to get away with last year. Production inflated by UNC’s highly aggressive scheme which frequently asked Surratt to rush the quarterback on delayed blitzes, providing him quite the runway, at times.

NFL Player Comparison: Kiko Alonso, New Orleans Saints – It was durability issues rather than a late positional switch which complicated Alonso’s projection to the NFL out of Oregon back in 2013, but the aggression and closing speed the 6-3, 239 pounder showed for the Ducks was clearly NFL caliber, warranting the Buffalo Bills investing the 46 overall pick in him. Like Alonso (who has 533 tackles in six NFL seasons), Surrat projects as a starter early in his NFL career with the potential to become a star.

Current NFL Draft Projection: First-Second Round

The Top 10 NFL Prospects at North Carolina:

1. Chazz Surratt, OLB, 6-2, 230, 4.60, rSR

2. Dyami Brown, WR, 6-1, 185, 4.45, JR

3. Dazz Newsome, WR, 5-10, 185, 4.40, SR

4. Michael Carter, RB, 5-09, 195, 4.50, SR

5. Tomon Fox, DE/OLB, 6-2, 250, 4.80, rSR

6. Javonte Williams, RB, 5-10, 205, 4.45, rSoph

7. Myles Wolfolk, S, 6-0, 195, 4.60, rSR

8. Jeremiah Gemmel, OLB, 6-0, 220, 4.70, rJR

9. Grayson Atkins, K, 5-10, 188, 4.85, SR – Transfer from Furman

10. Marcus McKethan, OT, 6-5, 340, 5.25, rJR

*All 40-yard dash times are estimates