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Scouting the opponent: North Carolina quarterback Chazz Surratt Duke's 'one that got away'

<p>The Tar Heels are led by redshirt freshman quarterback Chazz Surratt, who initially committed to Duke in 2015.</p>

The Tar Heels are led by redshirt freshman quarterback Chazz Surratt, who initially committed to Duke in 2015.

Bad blood reigns supreme in the Duke-North Carolina rivalry, and Chazz Surratt, the Blue Devil commit turned Tar Heel redshirt freshman quarterback, makes Duke fans’ blood flow an even darker blue.

For many North Carolina and Blue Devils fans, a switch to the rival side seems unfathomable. However, the former blue-chip recruit switched his allegiances in June 2015, when he announced his decommitment from Duke in favor of the Tar Heels. Surratt was formerly the centerpiece of Duke’s 2016 recruiting class and ranked as the top dual-threat quarterback in the state of North Carolina. The Denver, N.C., native’s change of heart certainly inspired animosity amongst Blue Devil coaches, players and fans alike.

North Carolina head coach Larry Fedora defended Surratt’s actions this week despite the murky circumstances, and he said when he asked Surratt if he wanted to continue being recruited after committing to Duke, Surratt said yes.

“I think deep down in his heart, this is probably where he wanted to go the whole time. He just had to find the right time to make that decision,” Fedora said at his weekly press conference Monday. “He was the guy we had picked from within the state that we felt like could help us win a championship. Especially at [quarterback], when you have one in the state, you have to find a way to get him.”

Duke head coach David Cutcliffe preferred to keep the focus on his own players Tuesday, saying he learned early in his coaching career not to fret about lost recruiting battles.

“I’m an old bass fisherman. You’ll never hear me talk about the one that got away,” Cutcliffe said. “Rarely, though, with this bass fisherman, when I really set the hook do they get away.”

Fedora’s expectations for Surratt have come to fruition thus far. The Tar Heel quarterback has accounted for seven touchdowns and has not turned the ball over yet this season. Surratt has evidently won the quarterback competition with Brandon Harris, an LSU graduate transfer who entered the season as North Carolina’s starter, but delivered two middling performances in losses against California and Louisville.

“[Surratt] is a great athlete. He has a great lefty touch. He has great fingers, he [can] put the ball where he wants it,” Cutcliffe said. “He’s physical. He has good size and quickness and can extend plays. There are just a lot of things about Chazz that [we] knew he [would be] a special athlete.”

The Blue Devils certainly will not underestimate the former Parade National Player of the Year and the team he commands despite the Tar Heels’ underwhelming 1-2 record. North Carolina turned in consecutive defeats to start the year before thrashing Old Dominion 53-23. Don’t be fooled by the team’s losing record—the Tar Heels held a lead in the fourth quarter of both of their losses. In its first ACC matchup against the Cardinals, North Carolina seemed poised for an upset and entered the final quarter with a narrow lead. Reigning Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson had other plans, and his 525 total yards and six touchdowns propelled Louisville to victory.  

The Tar Heels’ defense has been their Achilles’ heel so far this year. North Carolina ranks just 120th in the nation in total yards allowed per game and 108th in points allowed per game. Its passing defense has been particularly atrocious, as the Tar Heels have yielded 323.3 passing yards per contest through the third week.

Led by redshirt sophomore quarterback Daniel Jones and senior running back Shaun Wilson, Duke’s offense has been far improved from last season. Cutcliffe is planning to exploit North Carolina’s subpar defense primarily through the air.

“[The] first thing to do is to protect the quarterback better. Pass offense always starts with pass protection. That pass protection is a big long laundry list of responsibilities that belongs to the quarterback, the offensive line, the running backs, the tight ends and the receivers,” Cutcliffe said. “If receivers aren’t ready and separating on time, then you’re not going to get the football. So, the way you open up a pass offense and utilize more people is [to get everybody in sync], and that’s a work in progress that we work on every day.”

Ultimately, this Saturday’s matchup at Kenan Memorial Stadium will come down to quarterback performance—a former Duke commit leading the Tar Heels against Jones, a former preferred walk-on who seized the opportunity to start when Surratt chose not to come. 

The contest figures to be a shootout, as both teams have reached at least 30 points in each of their three games, but the Blue Devils have shown more potential on defense and could be primed to exact revenge on Surratt for their second straight win against their biggest rivals.

Mitchell Gladstone contributed reporting.

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