After helping lead the team into the second round of the state playoffs, Surratt injured his throwing elbow in the first quarter of a 47-6 blowout victory, knocking him out for the remainder of the season. Despite maintaining much of its core from the prior year’s state championship team, East Lincoln bowed out of the playoffs two weeks later.
“We were very talented for those four years he was here — we had five or six kids playing football still that were on those teams — but Chazz, he was the emotional and mental leader,” Lubcowicz said. “You could tell a lot of the air came out of our sails when he went down.”
‘I could tell he was a competitor off rip’
Surratt joined a North Carolina football team coming out of one of its best campaigns since Mack Brown departed for Texas in 1998. In 2015, Larry Fedora led UNC to its first ACC Championship Game appearance since the game started in 2005. With the starting spot taken by Mitch Trubisky, Surratt spent his first year in Chapel Hill redshirted.
Despite spending his whole first year on the practice field, his teammate Tomon Fox, the top-ranked player in UNC's 2016 class, said Surratt quickly earned his respect.
“I could tell he was a competitor off rip,” Fox said. “Me and him wore the same number so we wanted to try to see who wore the number better because we were both 12. Everything we’d do we’d just compete, whether it was on the field, whether it was in the weight room.”
Surratt's debut came in the third series of a game against Cal in 2017, where he finished as the Tar Heels' leading passer with 161 yards before ultimately losing in a 35-30 shootout.
“It was surreal playing for the first time in college,” Surratt said. “I don’t remember too much.”
The season opening loss foreshadowed more difficult Saturdays to come for the Tar Heels, as the excitement of back-to-back winning seasons quickly turned to disappointment when wins became few and far between. With Surratt splitting time behind center, the team topped just one FBS opponent on its way to a 3-9 record. Those nine losses in 2017 were more than Surratt suffered throughout all four years at East Lincoln.
More disappointment followed 2017 in Surratt’s redshirt sophomore campaign. The Tar Heels finished again with nine losses — this time only topping Pittsburgh and Western Carolina — in what turned out to be Fedora’s final season in Chapel Hill.
After struggling to produce wins in two campaigns under center, Surratt knew a change was in order.
Brown was hired to replace Fedora and return to Chapel Hill — this time with championship pedigree — and Surratt approached the new coaching staff with an unprecedented idea: moving from quarterback, a position that had won him numerous state titles, accolades and records, to linebacker.
“Basically, I just wanted to switch positions to get to the next level, play in the NFL,” Surratt said. “That was kind of my whole mindset.”
Tommy Thigpen, UNC’s co-defensive coordinator and inside linebackers coach, said Surratt initiated the change without any push from the coaching staff.
“It was definitely him, he was of course a quarterback all his life,” Thigpen said. “I was like, ‘If you come over here, we’re probably going to have to change your lifestyle.’”
‘He can be as good as he wants to be’
While the shift from quarterback to linebacker at the Power 5 level may sound unthinkable, if anyone was built for the move, it was Surratt.
In high school, Lubowicz said Surratt would sometimes play both sides of the ball in late-game scenarios. In a rivalry game against North Lincoln, the Knights scored to pull within one point of a Mustang lead as the clock ticked down. Surratt went into the game on special teams, blocked the extra point attempt, and secured a one-point victory for East Lincoln.
While the position change was surprising to some Tar Heels, Surratt quickly made his presence known.
Over the course of the offseason, Surratt gained 15 lbs. and earned the starting nod for a week one match up against South Carolina. His first game at linebacker didn’t disappoint, with Surratt notching a team-high 12 tackles, several of which came in key moments of the game.
A few weeks later in a one-point loss to then-No. 1 Clemson, it became clear to Thigpen that Surratt had arrived as a defensive force.
“He had sacks, he had pressures on the quarterback, he was perimeter to perimeter, he was covering vertical routes, he was covering receivers down the field," Thigpen said. "That’s the game when I said, ‘OK, he can be as good as he wants to be.’”
At the end of his first season at linebacker, Surratt had amassed one of the most impressive resumes of any player in the ACC. Finishing second in the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year voting, he led UNC with 115 tackles, 15 tackles-for-loss and added 6.5 sacks to boot.
He was eligible for the NFL Draft, but decided to return to Chapel Hill for his final year of eligibility.
“Me and Chazz got the opportunity to get this last year of film in that we can and try to show that we’re consistent players and that we can play at the next level,” Fox said.
Entering the year pegged as a preseason first-team All-American, Surratt could help determine just how far the No. 18 Tar Heels go. With the potential realization of NFL dreams looming in the near future, those who know him say Surratt will always find success.
"I wish I could take the work ethic and mental approach to the game and give it to some of the other kids," Lubowicz said. "He's just driven. He had an answer for it. He's going to be successful — he's just a great dude."
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