On June 6, Powell competed in the Virginia 6A track and field championships, finishing second in the shot put with a throw of 61-2 ½. Less than three months later, he turned in UNC’s cleanest performance up front.
“The first series was like a whole new world and then after that it felt like I was back home on my high school field playing again,” Powell told reporters this week.
The Midlothian, Va. product was considered a fringe top-25 prospect in his home state by recruiting services. UNC defensive line coach Keith Gilmore, however, had reason to believe Powell could play early.
“Being a multi-sport athlete like he is – he was second or third in the state in wrestling and he was second or third in the state in shot put – I just knew [with] the athleticism and the strength that he would have coming in as a freshman that he’d have an opportunity,” Gilmore said. “And then once I found out what his intensity level was like, I knew that he could play at this level as a freshman.”
It didn’t take long for training camp tales of Powell’s high motor to spread through social media and message boards.
“I was telling Coach Gilmore the other day, I have two gears – I have game speed and I have off,” Powell said. “I have a hard time finding that middle ground for walk-through. I’ve always been taught to go as hard as I can every single play, no plays off.”
Powell weighed 250 pounds at the end of wrestling season in February. He reached 290 pounds prior to training camp and has since settled in at 285 pounds on his 6-foot-4 frame.
Powell offered a glimpse into his mindset when asked about his film review takeaways of his play in the season opener against Liberty.
“The stuff that really stood out was the stuff that I needed to fix,” Powell said.
His intent in the opener was to prove to Gilmore that he could be trusted with playing time. That effort paid off last weekend as Powell entered the game on the fifth play from scrimmage as UNC’s starting nose guard in its money package, a personnel grouping designed for obvious passing downs.
Five plays later, Powell pushed into the offensive backfield through the right side before following the play – a screen pass to running back Donnel Pumphrey down the right sideline – across the field and making the tackle for a 1-yard gain.
When asked about a true freshman starting in such a critical sub-package, Gilmore replied: “It takes a special person.”
“I’ve never played a freshman this early like this at any of the stops I’ve been, but he’s earned it,” Gilmore continued. “He’s an intense kid. He plays hard every day. I’m only going to play the best guys for the best positions and he’s the best guy at this point to be in that position. He’s done a good job with it.”
Powell, who has three tackles through two games, is not immune to the rookie learning process, however. After helping his teammates stop the Aztecs on 3rd-and-5 from UNC’s 24-yard line in the second quarter, he drew a personal foul for extracurricular activities. Two plays later, San Diego State scored a touchdown to take a 14-7 lead.
“It was me being stupid, acting out and retaliating,” Powell said. “They always catch the second guy. So it’s something that I can learn from, grow from and never do again.”
North Carolina lost two nose guards due to academics prior to the start of training camp. Powell’s emergence has alleviated depth concerns and allowed Gilmore to rotate three lines through two games.