When spring practice concluded in 2018, all the UNC football coaches and players could talk about was how well “AC” had performed.
Aaron Crawford, a 6-2, 290-pound nose tackle who is considered the vocal leader of the defense, was one of the top performers in the spring in 2018. His teammates expected the results to show on the field, too.
But in the middle of training camp last August, just before the start of the 2018 season, Crawford tore his PCL and sprained his MCL as he tried to shed a block against then-teammate and former Tar Heels offensive lineman Jay Jay McCargo. He said his foot got caught in the old grass field at Kenan Stadium, and as his body went forward, his leg snapped back.
“It was crazy because you see how much respect the team and the coaches have for him,” junior linebacker Tomon Fox said, recalling the moment Crawford injured his knee. “When he went down, the whole practice stopped, just to get him off the field.”
Crawford was devastated.
He started all 12 games of the 2017 season as a redshirt sophomore. He recorded 29 tackles, three sacks, five tackles for loss and recovered a fumble. And for the 2018 season, he was ready to take a step forward.
But Crawford’s injury caused him to miss all but two games last season. His teammates and the coaching staff were excited when he first returned to the field on Oct. 13, and they hoped he could make a difference.
But when he finally returned, he wasn’t completely healthy. He wore a knee brace and moved a lot slower. He wasn’t the same “AC.” He played again on Oct. 27, but that was his final game in 2018.
“It was the toughest part of my career, hands down,” Crawford told The News & Observer on Friday afternoon. “I felt like I came out every day with the mind-set to dominate, and I felt like I put myself in the best position to do what I wanted to do last year, and I wasn’t able to showcase how I developed.”
In the two games Crawford played last season, he recorded only one tackle. Crawford watched from the sidelines as his team struggled.
The Tar Heels had depth issues in 2018, caused by suspensions and injuries.
And without Crawford manning the front, UNC had trouble stopping the run. It was 111th out of 130 FBS teams in stopping the run last year. Opponents averaged 218.8 yards per game against the Tar Heels.
There was nothing Crawford could do.
The Tar Heels finished 2-9 last season, and head coach Larry Fedora was fired.
But with his knee now healthy, Crawford is back. He used the offseason to recover. He earned a second degree from UNC-Chapel Hill in December, and with one year of eligibility left, has returned as graduate student for one last comeback attempt.
Crawford showed up in the spring and practiced without any limitations, which he said was the first hurdle he had to get past post-injury.
“That first live rep in spring ball, that was when everything cleared out my head,” Crawford said. “If I’m able to go out and stab the O-line and chase down running backs 23 yards down the field, then I don’t have anything to worry about because I put the work in on the front end of it.”
On Friday, the Tar Heels participated in their first day of training camp, nearly a year after Crawford sustained his knee injury. Crawford was there, and he participated in each drill. Crawford, whose beard resembles that of the rapper Rick Ross, has shed the brace he once had to wear. He said he was excited about the new season.
UNC coach Mack Brown called Crawford, and senior defensive lineman Jason Strowbridge, the “kingpins of our front.”
“We need to stop the run better, and they are a key part of that,” Brown said. “Aaron is tough and a big run stopper inside.”
When asked what his individual goals were this season, Crawford said he didn’t have any. He won’t be keeping track of his stats.
“I have no goals,” Crawford said. “I have no intentions other than to dominate.”