CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Defensive lineman Jalen Dalton, the prized recruit in North Carolina’s 2015 signing class, made his North Carolina debut in Saturday’s 50-14 win against Wake Forest.
It appeared a month ago as though Dalton, a four-star prospect ranked as the top rated in-coming freshman for UNC and a consensus top two prospect in the state, would redshirt his freshman season after enrolling in January. As the calendar turned from September to October, the 6-foot-6, 280-pound tackle began to elevate his play in practice.
As injuries at the defensive tackle position mounted – three players ahead of Dalton on the depth chart sat out Saturday’s game – the opportunity for playing time finally emerged.
“I dreamed about it,” Dalton told reporters after the game. “I daydreamed about it, all of that.”
Dalton recorded four tackles in his debut. His first career stop came by dragging down Wake Forest quarterback Kendall Hinton after an 11-yard run on third down to force a punt. Head coach Larry Fedora revealed on his weekly radio show earlier in the week that Dalton would likely play against Wake Forest, citing his improved play in practice over the previous three weeks.
“I liked, first of all, that he’s just getting out there, getting out under the lights, and he played hard,” Fedora said after the game. “I don’t think he probably played a tremendous game, but he played pretty hard, and he made some plays. So he gave us something that we didn’t have, and we needed him. I’m proud of what he did.”
That something was greatly needed pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
“Probably good push for the pass rush,” Dalton said when asked what he brings to the defense. “I know how it was close a lot of times, but I know I bring that good push that we’ve been looking for.”
The Clemmons, N.C. native found out from defensive coordinator Gene Chizik during the bye week that playing time was a possibility.
“Coach Chizik brought me into his office last Thursday, and then we talked about it,” Dalton said. “He said if my production that Thursday in practice was the same on Sunday’s practice, then I’ll probably have a good chance to play.”
That led to a week of pregame jitters, which finally went away after the game kicked off.
“I had to get through the few days of practice, and after practice, it was just the mental stuff,” Dalton said. “As soon as kickoff came, it was on, really. And then as soon as I got out for the first series, I knew it was the same thing as high school. It’s just football, so I was okay after that.”
Dalton is the eighth true freshman to take snaps for UNC this season.