CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – No. 22 North Carolina’s defensive staff has been all smiles with the recent play of Aaron Crawford, but you won’t find the redshirt freshman defensive tackle grinning. Crawford is all business, and has been waiting for his moment for over a year now.
The 310-pound lineman came to UNC with the expectations of early playing time as a true freshman, but was sidelined with nagging injuries to start the 2015 campaign. He suffered a season-ending left foot fracture in October.
Crawford’s injuries derailed the momentum he had built in training camp.
“It was rough,” Crawford said on Tuesday. “Coming into training camp I felt like I did a pretty good job and coaches noticed that, too. I sprained my ankle the last day of training camp so that set me back… Right after that I felt like I was starting to get healthy again and the first practice of the bye week it happened. That kind of shook things up a little bit.”
The foot fracture essentially changed the entirety of Crawford’s freshman season, and forced him to deal with the harsh realities of rehab.
“I was in a scooter, a boot, a cast for really most of my freshman year,” Crawford said. “My weight went up heavy – I think at one point I got up to like 325 which is not where they wanted me to be at so I had to lose a lot of that right before spring ball. It was a hard time; I’m not going to lie.”
By the time spring ball rolled around, Crawford’s foot was healed and he was ready to pad up once again. He used the spring and summer to get himself back into playing shape and prepare for his first official season.
The only problem for Crawford was that entering the 2016 season, he found himself third on UNC’s depth chart. Even with all the progress he had made to get back on the field, he didn’t know if he would play a role in UNC’s defense this year. That changed when junior defensive tackle Nazair Jones got injured prior to the James Madison game.
“For one, I have to thank Naz because without his concussion I don’t know where I’d be at right now,” Crawford said. “I try to show up to work everyday and give it all I’ve got, whether or not I was in the third row, which I was at in the beginning of the season. I just felt like if I kept working I’d eventually get my shot. It happened and I’ve been trying to continue to rise ever since.”
Crawford found immediate success in his first career start against James Madison the following week and has been an integral part of the Tar Heels’ defensive line rotation ever since. He’s recorded 21 tackles in six games and become an imposing presence in the middle.
“He grinded his way into a starting job,” defensive coordinator Gene Chizik said. “We saw flashes of him being a very productive player when he got here but then he got hurt. There were so many injuries that he kind of went in and out…. Then he got healthy and started getting in a groove and started being productive. It was hard to tell how it was going to unfold, but everything he’s got right now he earned.”
As Crawford becomes more of a household name, it’s about time for his outgoing personality, or rather lack thereof, to show.
“The guys make fun of me everyday because I don’t really smile too often,” Crawford said. “Right before practice or right before a workout they think I’m about to fall asleep but really I’m trying to get prepared for what I’m about to do. I don’t really do much else besides sleep. When I do get home I’m exhausted.”
That exhaustion shows in the mornings, according to defensive end Mikey Bart, but he says a simple workout can change Crawford’s attitude.
“He’s kind of bipolar sometimes,” Bart said. “In the mornings he’s pissed off about everything, but in practice he’s always in a good mood, and in lifts he’s always in a good mood. I guess he’s just not a morning person.”
As Crawford continues his ascension in UNC’s defense, he may be on trajectory to crack a smile by the end of the season. Maybe.