To maintain possession of the Victory Bell, Duke will have to slow Chazz Surratt.

Film room: North Carolina

Every week, the Blue Zone takes you inside the video room and breaks down a key piece, player or unit for the Blue Devils’ opponent. Freshman quarterback Chazz Surratt and his shifty receivers are under the microscope in this week’s edition of film room: 

One thing’s for sure: North Carolina can’t stop anything on defense. 

But even a year after losing nearly 90 percent of its total offense, the Tar Heels can still make big passing plays—something Duke will need to limit if it wants to take home the Victory Bell. 

North Carolina ranks fifth in the nation against Power Five teams in explosive passing plays thus far—not an encouraging sign for a Blue Devil defense that has struggled with letting up big plays in recent years. A season ago, Duke was 122nd in the nation in 20-plus yard receptions allowed, and though it has been stingier this season in that regard, the only team it has played so far with big-play potential, Baylor, still gained 238 of its 263 passing yards on just five plays. 

For the second week in a row, the Blue Devils will face an inexperienced quarterback, this time redshirt freshman Chazz Surratt. The 2015 Gatorade North Carolina player of the year hasn’t gotten much support from his defense, which ranks dead last among Power Five teams in yards allowed, but he has kept the Tar Heel offense chugging while beating out LSU graduate transfer Brandon Harris for the job. 

A dual-threat quarterback, Surratt’s style is in stark contrast with that of last year’s pocket passer and Chicago Bears’ No. 2 overall pick Mitchell Trubisky. Certainly, there were some questions about whether Surratt would have the tools around him to succeed after four of the top five North Carolina receivers departed following last season, including quick and elusive All-ACC receiver Ryan Switzer. 

But North Carolina certainly has the playmakers to help Surratt, starting with receiver Austin Proehl. 

The 5-foot-10 senior receiver wasn’t an elite prospect coming out of high school, but boasts the elusivity that could give Duke’s secondary fits. Despite playing with five current NFL pass-catchers last season, Proehl was third on the team in receiving yards and has continued to stand out this season. 

Against Louisville, Proehl flashed his ability to make moves after the catch. On a first-down play in the first quarter, Proehl caught a screen behind the line of scrimmage and immediately had three defenders in his face. But he found a way to squirt around all of them without ever being touched, making his way forward for a 14-yard gain on what should have been a loss. 

Spearheaded by track star safety Jeremy McDuffie, the Blue Devil secondary has the speed to keep up with fast receivers, but sometimes struggles with tackling in the open field—something Proehl could expose. 

Although North Carolina’s offense doesn’t ask Surratt to make many difficult throws, he can when called upon. Early in the second quarter against the Cardinals, Surratt stayed strong with his footwork in the pocket and delivered a 37-yard strike to receiver Thomas Jackson, dropping the ball just over the defender’s head and into Jackson’s hands with precise touch. 

The Tar Heels don’t have burners at receiver, but Surratt doesn’t necessarily need them to succeed. North Carolina’s offense scored eight points more per game under dual-threat signal-caller Marquise Williams in 2015—it thrives with a quarterback that can improvise and run the football consistently. 

With Surratt at the helm, it’s on roughly the same pace this season—and it’s easy to see why. The Denver, N.C., native and former Duke commit can throw on the run and keep the Tar Heels’ offense moving at a high tempo. 

After throwing for a big gain to get close to the goal line, Surratt hurried the troops to the line, got the play off quickly, and rolled to his left. He was then able to hit his receiver in a tight window to sneak into the end zone—not a play head coach Larry Fedora would have drawn for Trubisky. 

Surratt has flashed both his improvisational and designed rushing potential, which gave him a 66-yard performance against California. Like Proehl, he thrives on his elusivity, not necessarily his elite speed—it’s rare to see him take a direct hit.

But like many freshmen, sometimes he leans too heavily on his improvisational skills when he should just take the sack and move on. On second-and-short against Louisville in the first half, Surratt dropped back and saw no receivers open downfield. Suddenly, the pocket collapsed. 

Instead of quickly taking the fall with three defensive linemen penetrating the Tar Heel front, he tried to get around them for a few seconds before letting a fumble loose when getting taken down by two Cardinals—and he might have been trying to throw it away. 

North Carolina recovered, but since Surratt ran so far backwards, North Carolina faced third-and-34 after a loss of 30 yards. 

With shifty receivers, Surratt certainly has the potential to gash Duke for big plays both with his legs and with his arm, but he struggles at times with these sorts of freshman mistakes and a general lack of accuracy on midrange throws.

Facing a merely passable Tar Heel traditional running game, the Blue Devils will likely look to dial up pressure on Surratt to force him to make mistakes. That strategy worked against Northwestern’s Clayton Thorson this season, though they were unable to slow Wake Forest, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech’s mobile quarterbacks last season. 

Containing Surratt and Proehl will be no easy task, but if Duke can do it, it should have little trouble with North Carolina, especially with Daniel Jones’ offense taking on a cratering Tar Heel defense. 

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