It’s time to wake up, Jalen.
The accolades that escorted Dalton into his first year in Chapel Hill ensured all eyes were on him from the moment he stepped on campus: the No. 1 player in the state of North Carolina, the No. 4 defensive end in the nation, and an Under Armour All-America selection.
“I don't really look at things like that as reality,” Dalton said of the recruiting praise. “I don't think that was one of the things that put pressure on me. I realize that’s there, but that’s not why I feel pressure. There's pressure just all from the inside.”
The hype wasn’t reality. The results were. And the results weren’t what Dalton had hoped for himself. In a season that he could have redshirted, Dalton found himself earning significant minutes in his first year in Chapel Hill. But he felt as though he wasn’t making the most of them.
He attacked the gym over the spring and summer, putting on over 40 pounds as he made the move from defensive end to defensive tackle.
“I had a really big spring and then had a pretty good training camp,” Dalton recalled, “so I thought going into the season, ‘This is going to be my season, finally.’”
“Well, once again, it just didn't turn out like I wanted it to.”
While serving next to future NFL draft pick Nazair Jones, Dalton was a productive member of the Tar Heel defense but struggled to find consistency. To make matters worse, the unit that had been the most improved scoring defense in the nation in 2015 regressed, as the team slipped to a surprising and disappointing 8-5 record.
As he enters his junior year, Dalton is running out of time to find the footing that he feels like he lacked in his underclass years.
“This is my third year, so if I have another season like that then I just ...” Dalton said. He paused. “I just don't know.”
Dalton plans on being right beside his teammates at all times this season.
He said the reason he has gotten to this point is because of how much he regrets the moments he hasn’t been there.
Dalton can certainly recall those moments. Last year at Kenan Stadium his team came just short of a comeback against Tobacco Road rival N.C. State. He needs no reminder that he wasn’t there to help the Tar Heels claw back into the game.
“Emotions were just high that game,” Dalton said. “Things weren't going the way we wanted them to go."
The Tar Heels had fallen behind early and were failing to capitalize on opportunities to put themselves back in the game. An obviously frustrating situation boiled over for Dalton. He punched an opponent and was ejected from the game.
For a guy with a quiet public persona, Dalton can also get emotional when it comes to football. He will be the first to tell you: his emotions can get the best of him. That is what happened against the Wolfpack a season ago. His emotions took over, and cost him the opportunity to be there for his teammates on the field.
But Dalton and his teammates believe that this year, finally, that can be one of his biggest strengths.
“You let Jalen be Jalen,” fellow tackle Jeremiah Clarke said. “He is emotional. He lets his emotions drive him. I think it’s a good thing. We thrive off his emotion. On low-energy days, he’s the guy that gets us up, gets us hype, gets us going. Definitely just let him do him.”
Emotion isn’t a weakness in football. It is the differentiating factor between players like Dalton and everyone else. As long as it is controlled.
“It's good to play with a lot of emotion,” Dalton said. “I'm learning how to play with it better and play with it smarter. So that's that.”
If he hasn’t lived up to expectations, if he has been raw or immature at times, Dalton is set on redefining himself this year.
“I think Jalen is definitely stepping into more of a leadership role this year,” Clarke said. “I think he understands that the past seasons, he hasn’t played up to what he thinks his standards are. We’ve challenged him, and he’s challenged us to be the best person we can be in this offseason.”
The mental turnaround came during a program with the Marines that the team participated in during training camp.
“It's basically just team building,” Dalton said of the program. “They break us down only to build us up. We just have those leaders build us up and just take the team when things get hard.”
“I stepped in and the coaches saw that I could be that leader. So it’s kind of just carrying out on the field.”
Perhaps it wasn’t the coaches who saw Jalen in a new light. It could be that Jalen needed to see himself as a leader for things to finally make sense.
“He’s always been a confident guy,” teammate Aaron Crawford said, “but seeing it click in his head … when that light goes on, he’s really unstoppable.”
The change certainly has been noticeable among the coaching staff, too.
“I’ve seen him dominate this camp,” defensive line coach Deke Adams said. “And he knows there is no way to let things up. There’s no way to look for a way out.”
It’s a distinct change from the Dalton that the North Carolina football team has rostered for the past two years. This is a Dalton who isn’t just bigger, faster and stronger than the Jalen Dalton who has donned the UNC uniform for the past two seasons. The words used to describe him, words like “dominant,” “unstoppable” and “confident,” reveal the transformation going on beneath the surface.
He’s still not looking for attention or praise. He’d rather walk the walk than talk the talk. But don’t mistake the quiet for complacency. Something is different with Jalen Dalton this season.
The giant has woken up.