North Carolina defensive end Dajaun Drennon had a smile on his face after the Tar Heel’s 48-20 win over Georgia Tech Saturday. Not only was he happy about the win, but he was back, and healthy for the first time in what, for him, felt like forever.
“I feel like I’m at 100 percent,” Drennon said. “I finished the game with no bang at all, so I’m good. It’s the best thing that’s happened to me this year, to be honest.”
It’s true. He had it all planned out.
Drennon, a three-year starter for the Tar Heels, had hoped to have a breakout season. And if that season was good enough, maybe he could move on to the next level.
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Maybe a shot at the NFL.
But in spring practice earlier this year, the 6-foot-5, 256-pound junior, injured his foot on what he said was “a simple play.”
Thinking he’d be back before the start of the regular season, he missed the first five games. While he was out, the Tar Heels had struggled to find a consistent replacement opposite fellow defensive end Mikey Bart.
Over the past few seasons, Drennon has been a key piece to the Tar Heels’ defense. During his first season as a starter, Drennon, then a redshirt freshman, recorded 36 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss and two sacks. Last season, as a sophomore, he recorded 39 tackles, five tackles for loss, and 1.5 sacks on a much better defense under new defensive coordinator Gene Chizik.
Drennon returned against Virginia Tech during a game most remembered for being played during a hurricane. The Tar Heels also lost big, 34-3, and trail the Hokies via tiebreaker in the ACC Coastal Division with only three regular-season games left to play.
Drennon picked up one tackle against Virginia Tech.
Then he pulled a hamstring. He missed the next game against Miami, a 20-13 win, and played only eight snaps in a 35-14 win over Virginia the following week.
“It’s tough because you want to be out there, you want to contribute,” Drennon said.
Being out for weeks helped him in many ways, however. For instance, it helped him become a better leader.
“It’s been a struggle physically, but mentally it helped me grow a lot more as a player and human being,” Drennon said. “And just seeing when you’re not able to contribute to the team on the field, then it helped me be a lot more of a vocal leader to the younger guys and just pick them up and get them going.”
Saturday was a full go. Drennon said he wasn’t nervous, but on gameday he woke up anxious to play.
“It’s like those first game butterflies again,” he said. “You know in the first game of the season, you get those butterflies. Like ‘all right the season is finally here. We’re about to do our job. Do this, do that,’ and it’s like I haven’t got to experience that yet because I haven’t got to play in an actual game.
“But after that first snap I’m there all the way.”
Drennon didn’t fill up the stat sheet Saturday, but he was a big part of a stout defense that held Georgia Tech to just three points in the second half. The defensive front was key in stuffing a third-and-short and a fourth-and-short. And the defense forced two key turnovers in the third and fourth quarters. Those two turnovers in back-to-back possessions were later converted to offensive touchdowns, which were a big reason the Yellow Jackets couldn’t catch up.
“It was just good to have 17 back out there,” UNC coach Larry Fedora said.
Fellow defensive lineman Nazair Jones, said the defensive front will be even better going forward.
Drennon agreed. His aspirations have changed since the two injuries that kept him out of multiple games. He said he’s now focused on being a better team leader than “focusing on myself all the time.”
And while he won’t have the breakout season he was initially hoping for, if his team is winning and he’s healthy, he’ll still be smiling.