When Chazz Surratt, then perhaps the best high school quarterback in North Carolina, committed to Duke in April 2015, members of the UNC coaching staff felt the kind of disappointment that comes naturally whenever they lose a coveted prospect. They also believed they had a chance, still, to convince Surratt to come to Chapel Hill.
“I remember that when he made the commitment (to Duke),” Larry Fedora, the Tar Heels’ coach, said earlier this week, “he wasn’t real sure, he wasn’t 100 percent. So we just felt like if they wanted us to continue to recruit him, we would.”
Keith Heckendorf, the UNC quarterbacks coach whose relationship with Surratt dates to Surratt’s sophomore year at East Lincoln High, put it another way, speaking to the reality of the cutthroat world of college football recruiting: “The recruiting process,” he said, “is never over until either they show up on campus in January or they sign in February.”
UNC on Saturday plays against Duke at Kenan Stadium. It will be the 104th football game between these schools, and the earliest ever played, and one of the most intriguing subplots will be the performance of Surratt, the second-year freshman UNC quarterback who rejected the Blue Devils after telling Duke’s coaching staff that he was coming there.
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Had Surratt remained committed to Duke and eventually signed with the Blue Devils, he would have represented a rare kind of recruiting coup for coach David Cutcliffe and his program, which has signed but three in-state prospects in its past two recruiting classes. As it is, though, Surratt, to Cutcliffe, is instead the one who got away – and one who wound up playing for a fierce rival, no less.
Cutcliffe, who described himself earlier this week as “an old bass fisherman,” said he tries to avoid thoughts of the ones he didn’t catch, the players he thought he had who wound up signing elsewhere. This week, though, it’s likely to be especially difficult to push those thoughts away. News of Surratt’s commitment to Duke was celebrated, at the time, and his change of heart created a bigger story.
“You don’t ever worry about the ones that you don’t get,” Cutcliffe said. “There are too many things you can do to help the ones you do get. The ones you do get, you are with them every day for the next four or five years.
“The ones you don’t get that go somewhere else, one day a year you are dealing with them and competing. … When you are young, it used to really get to me. But I don’t even have to train myself. In a lot of ways, you are insulting the ones you did get if your focus is on the ones that got away.”
The story of Surratt’s decision to change his mind, in it of itself, isn’t particularly compelling. To hear Surratt and UNC’s coaches tell it, Surratt committed to Duke but still remained in touch with Heckendorf, Fedora and other members of the Tar Heels’ staff. In time, Surratt realized he wanted to go at UNC, and a little more than two months after committing to Duke, he rescinded his commitment.
As standard as the story is, Surratt, a 6-3, 215-pound redshirt freshman, found himself surrounded by reporters, cameras and microphones after a practice earlier this week. Soft-spoken and quiet, at least in front of the swarm of media, Surratt recounted his recruitment. He didn’t sound particularly enamored to share the story. He sounded, instead, ready to get on with it – to answer the questions as quickly as he could so they’d cease.
“I think the biggest thing is just in my heart I felt like I wanted to end up at Carolina,” said Surratt, who was named Parade Magazine’s 2016 national high school player of the year. “I grew up a Carolina fan. I really had a good relationship with my quarterbacks coach, coach Heckendorf. I think that’s the biggest two things, really.”
Surratt’s recruiting story – a football player committing to one school, then deciding to commit to another – isn’t unique in college football. It happens all the time, so much so that some college football coaches have, for a long time, pushed the idea of an early signing period (and one is coming, at last, in December) in hopes of making recruiting a little less crazy, both for players and coaches.
What makes Surratt’s story especially unique, though, is that his change of heart just so happened to involve two rivals, and two head coaches known for their wizardry with quarterbacks. Cutcliffe is perhaps best known for coaching the Manning brothers – Peyton and Eli – during their college years. Fedora, meanwhile, helped Mitch Trubisky become the No. 2 overall pick in the NFL draft last spring.
It made for some memorable conversations when Surratt decided, once and for all, that he no longer wanted to attend Duke. One phone call, to UNC, was celebratory. Fedora and Heckendorf landed their man, after all – the quarterback prospect, Fedora said who “we had picked from within the state that we felt like could help us win a championship.”
And then there was the call to Duke to break the bad news. Surratt made that call along with his parents, the three of them on one end of the line with Cutcliffe on the other. Surratt said he spoke “a little bit” during that conversation, but that his parents played the leading role in informing Cutcliffe of the news. Surratt couldn’t detail Cutcliffe’s reaction.
“My parents did that,” Surratt said. “They handled a lot of that. I talked to him a little bit, but my parents handled that situation.”
If Cutcliffe harbors ill will, his public commentary this week hasn’t been indicative of any. His team’s defense, meanwhile, has tried to develop a plan to limit Surratt, who is expected to make his third college start on Saturday.
It’d be only natural if, at times, Cutcliffe wonders what might have been. Duke has found offensive success with Daniel Jones, a redshirt sophomore quarterback but, undoubtedly, Surratt would have had a chance to compete for the position had he chosen to keep his original commitment.
And yet, in thinking along those lines, about those who have gotten away, Cutcliffe returned to his fisherman analogy. There is skill in the precision of baiting a hook and casting a line, in reeling it in upon sensing a bite – and all of that has parallels in recruiting. If anything, fishing is a whole lot more peaceful, though, and perhaps a little bit less heartbreaking.
“You will never hear me talk about the one that got away,” Cutcliffe said. “Rarely, with this bass fisherman, when I really set the hook do they get away.”
Surratt is one who did. He went from one of the prized members of Duke’s recruiting class to one of the most important parts of UNC’s – the Tar Heels’ quarterback of the future. And that future arrived more quickly, perhaps, than he might have envisioned.
Surratt sat out last season, and spent those months studying Trubisky – how he prepared and practiced, especially. When Trubisky entered the NFL draft, Surratt knew he’d have an opportunity to earn the starting job, but Fedora was so underwhelmed with his remaining quarterbacks that he made a priority of pursuing a graduate transfer at the position.
When Brandon Harris announced his intention to transfer from LSU to UNC, the obvious presumption was that Harris, who showed promise amid inconsistency at LSU, would start for the Tar Heels. And he did – for one game. Harris labored through his debut during UNC’s 35-30 loss to California, and Surratt, who quickly improved throughout the preseason, seized the opportunity.
Since, Surratt has started UNC’s past two games. He excelled in the first half of a 47-35 defeat against Louisville before a minor injury forced him to the sideline of that game, and then Surratt helped lead the Tar Heels to their first victory last weekend, a 53-23 win at Old Dominion. He has passed for 586 yards and completed 46 of 66 throws in three games. Now comes a particularly distinct challenge: a game against the school he was planning on attending, if only for a while.
Surratt said the expected story line this weekend – the UNC quarterback who committed to Duke deciding to go to UNC, instead – is for “the outside people” to discuss. And yet he acknowledged the obvious, too: that this game, indeed, will be “a little unique,” he said, because of his history with the opponent.
In April 2015, Duke believed it had won Surratt’s services. Duke celebrated while UNC mourned. Less than three months later, everything changed, those rivals switching roles, and reactions, when Surratt decided to switch schools. To the coaches involved, it wasn’t the first time that they’d won, or lost, a recruitment after a prospect had a change of heart.
“It’s just recruiting,” said Heckendorf, UNC’s quarterbacks coach. “We have it happen to us all the time.”
The off-the-field competition involving Surratt ended then, when he finalized his college decision. In many ways, the on-the-field competition begins on Saturday, with Surratt leading his team against the one he spurned.
Staff writer Steve Wiseman contributed to this report.
Duke at UNC
When: 3:30 p.m., Saturday
Where: Kenan Stadium, Chapel Hill