Experience On Big Stage Fueling Asante's Confidence
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CHAPEL HILL – As much as North Carolina wanted to have Chazz Surratt on the field during the Orange Bowl in January, what was gained by not having him available has already shown itself and will even more once the Tar Heels launch into their season in September.
The benefit was the 63 snaps Eugene Asante played in his absence, and that he turned in a nice performance: 10 tackles and a 72.4 grade, according to PFF.
Furthermore, Asante’s play pushed his game forward in literally every aspect. Not only did he gain significant confidence, but he is now carrying himself as a been-there-done-that guy. Had Surratt played, a large question mark would loom over Asante until the opener at Virginia Tech. Instead, Carolina knows what it has at middle linebacker.
“It really, really helped Eugene Asante playing in the bowl game,” UNC Coach Mack Brown said. “It gave him great confidence. He showed us he's good enough. And at the same time, he looked better today than I've ever seen him because he comes in with much more confidence and we've got more confidence in him.”
Asante played only 163 snaps on defense last fall, so 38.7 of his game reps on that side of the ball came versus Texas A&M, the No. 5 team in the nation. It was not Asante’s first start, however. He started versus Virginia Tech when the staff wanted an extra linebacker out there, perhaps one could say it was a hybrid nickel spot for the game. Asante played 28 snaps that day and did not have nearly the responsibility he did versus the Aggies.
The performance in the Orange Bowl has had quite a residual effect for the native of Chantilly, VA, which is about 25 miles southwest of Washington, D.C.
“I certainly think I changed the way I approach practice, lead in the room, and the way I approach every day,” Asante said.
Yet, as much confidence as he gained that night, and the ensuing workouts and spring practice progress as well, he can’t shake from his mindset the “what ifs” from the bowl game. Teammates say Asante is as studious as anyone on the roster, so naturally his focus for months has been the mistakes made on that massive stage.
“Looking back at that Orange Bowl game, there's a couple of tackles that I missed early,” Asante said. “Just a couple of tackles that I missed, and I feel like I should have made certain plays in that game and just bringing my feet on contact. Those are a couple things that I've seen in the game that I feel like this offseason that I really wanted to improve on.”
Moving forward, the 6-foot-1, 220-pound Asante has an important role to play filling Surratt’s shoes. They still speak every once in a while, as Surratt has an open-door policy with Asante: Any time he has a question, just call. And he has.
He also has senior Jeremiah Gemmel to learn from and provide balance on the field.
“Man, it’s great, just having Jeremiah out there,” Asante said. “At this point, I think Jeremiah has enough snaps to account for probably all the guys in our room. So, just having a guy like that next to me, understanding that he's so seasoned, he’s a veteran leader and he does everything that you would want of a leader. It's great to have him out there. That's my big brother and we talk every day.
“He pushes me and I push him as well and we're just trying to be the best tandem we can be. And with him and other guys on the defense, like Tomon Fox.”
Gemmel says Asante already had the respect and confidence from his teammates before the bowl game, but he has certainly seen a different side to him since.
“It’s not even that he’s carrying himself different, I think the guys on the team now understand,” Gemmel said. “It wasn’t just him playing in the Texas A&M game, Eugene started on all special teams for us.
“He was a war daddy on special teams, he showed up every single week on special teams, so the team was comfortable, they were confident, they knew he was going to play his role and be on the spot. And I think he just took that extra step by stepping into the role.”
Asante was in for 167 plays on special teams last season and been in for 315 in his Carolina career. Add his 214 snaps at linebacker, and Asante has been on the field for 529 plays. So yes, the A&M game helped, but Asante’s track was bringing him in this direction anyway.
Defensive coordinator Jay Bateman’s read on Asante is not based on just one game. It is two seasons plus this spring. He is more than a qualified judge on what Asante can do.
“Eugene can run, cover, and I think the days of the really big linebackers (are over), and that is why I think the NFL has a high opinion of Chazz,” Bateman said. “The skill set has become more of a safety skillset than a d-lineman skillset, and I think that is what Eugene is.”
He is also North Carolina’s other starter at middle linebacker, a role he has already proven he can handle.