CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – This time a year ago, the word leaking out of North Carolina’s training camp was that heralded defensive line recruit Jalen Dalton was not ready for the college game. Now he’s in the process of locking down a starting role at defensive tackle.
“Jalen Dalton, this time last year, in my mind, was absolutely 100 percent a redshirt,” defensive coordinator Gene Chizik said on Tuesday. “There was no way he could play for me, and then all of a sudden, through the capacity of boredom and doing the same things over and over and over again, in Week 1, we’re looking at him, going, ‘Hey, this guy might have a chance.’”
Expectations were a bit tempered for Dalton coming out of West Forsyth (N.C.) High School despite his status as a four-star recruit and arguably the top player in the state due to his youth. Dalton enrolled at UNC as a 17-year-old, and only turned 19 last week.
His potential, however, has been apparent since Day 1. After initially working at defensive end, Dalton proved to his coaches that his quickness inside was a greater asset. His rapid development at tackle speaks to the effort involved with closing the gap between reality and promise.
“That’s the progression that young guys make,” Chizik said. “Some guys catch on to it fast, some don’t, but that’s a great example of a guy doing the same thing every day, grinding, and finding a way to get on the field as a young guy.”
It wasn’t until North Carolina’s sixth game in 2015 – a 50-14 win over Wake Forest on Oct. 17 – that Dalton had gained enough of the coaching staff’s trust to play. He totaled 11 tackles, two quarterback hurries and a tackle for loss in eight appearances. There were both highlight plays and missed assignments during his game snaps, which are to be expected from true freshmen playing on the interior.
“Everybody wants to be that star player, but just coming out of high school, the game was much quicker and the guys were stronger,” Dalton said. “But this year I’ve finally got things under my belt and things have definitely slowed down for me.”
Dalton worked his way up the depth chart at 3-technique in spring ball, but ran into a sizeable obstacle in the form of junior defensive tackle Nazair Jones. It was then that Chizik and defensive line coach Tray Scott made the decision to move Jones to nose guard and elevated Dalton to the first team at 3-technique.
“We’re trying to put our best, biggest, most physical players on the field, so right now that’s where we feel like we’re at,” Chizik said.
Jones described Dalton as a balanced disruptor on the interior, posing problems for the offense in both the run and pass games.
“He’s just a great player,” Jones said. “He showed that he belongs to be in a starting position over the spring, so the coaches thought it was a great idea to get him and me on the field together. I always thought he should be playing beside me. Being the older guy that I am, I slid down inside, he’s taken over my position and so now we’re on the field together. I think that will be a great 1-2 punch for our defense.”
Pad level for a player of Dalton’s size – he stands 6-foot-6 and fluctuates between 290-295 pounds – can be difficult at times, so proper technique has been an offseason emphasis. Eating just about anything has been a focus as well. Chicken Alfredo is a personal favorite, straight out of his own kitchen. His ability to cook means that late night snacks are often leftovers.
Proper size, strength and conditioning are required at this level, although Chizik highlighted his understanding of the defense as a critical component to his rise up the depth chart.
“I think he’s really, really becoming a more physical player and playing with strong hands, which you have to play [with] down there,” Chizik said. “His pass rush is really an asset for him. Obviously, because he’s been a defensive end, so that would make sense. So just the physicality of the game and learning how to play down there and learning how to play at a physical level because when you’re 6-6, your leverage isn’t always great, so he’s still learning to do that, but much improved.”
Dalton’s emergence has furthered bolstered a defensive line that Chizik would prefer to be three-deep. Robert Dinkins and Jeremiah Clarke, UNC’s current backups at defensive tackle, each started games last fall.