North Carolina Tar Heels defensive end Robert Quinn is an absolute terror coming off the corner. Offensive coordinators throughout the Atlantic Coast Conference are assuredly concerned with how to scheme against the junior from North Charleston, SC, as his quickness and brute strength have become so overpowering in college that NFL scouts have almost unanimously projected him in the top five of the 2011 draft.
Over lunch with roommates and teammates Jordan Nix and Kenny Owens, however, Quinn displays an etiquette that repeatedly moves Nix to call him, “a real southern gent.” His eyes are glued to his plate as his buddies gloat over his soon-to-be fortune, shaking his head and knocking on the wooden table, saving his season from their presumptive jinx. When Nix and Owens brought up the school records he owns, Quinn was quick to respond, “What records? I don’t have any records.” And that was it. He didn’t say that to prod them into reminding those at the table of his accomplishments, he said it so he could eat his hibachi chicken and shrimp without feeling uncomfortable.
I won’t let him be so humble, however. In April, 2010, Quinn broke UNC’s lineman record in the 40-yard dash, clocking in at a blazing 4.38 seconds, .15 seconds faster than the previous holder, Julius Peppers. Additionally, he holds the lineman record for the power clean lift at 374 pounds. He recently tipped the scales at 266 pounds. While Quinn may squirm when reading those last sentences, you can rest assured quarterbacks throughout the ACC are even less comfortable.
So as his third and, presumably, final season in Chapel Hill approaches, let’s get to know Quinn a little better.
At Fort Dorchester High School in North Charleston, SC, Quinn made a name for himself in athletics with his brute strength and agility. Meanwhile, in school his humility and compassion made him one of the most well liked students among both his peers and his teachers. If he wasn’t practicing football or wrestling, or at home relaxing with his parents, you might have found Quinn working the registers at Burger King, where he worked his sophomore through senior years of high school. A normal, albeit highly gifted, high school student-athlete trying to decide between colleges, Quinn’s life turned on a dime one day in the fall of 2008.
Throughout the first couple weeks of his senior football season, Quinn had been experiencing occasional headaches and dizzy spells. Chalking them up to a missed breakfast here or lack of sleep there, Quinn thought nothing of them. Until one morning, after fainting twice before school, his mother decided that was it. He was going to the hospital. Tests showed Quinn had developed a small brain tumor that had been causing the subtle differences that his friends and family had been noticing for a few weeks.
“Looking back, my family said I’d been acting a bit different lately,” says Quinn about the side effects caused by the tumor. “I didn’t think much of it until those tests came back.” After hearing of the tumor, athletics were put on hold for several weeks. After a successful surgery to remove the benign tumor, however, Quinn’s focus immediately shifted back to sports: Not to his looming college decision, instead to his senior wrestling season.
“That was my main motivation to get back as quickly as possible,” Quinn says of his recovery. “I wanted that third title.”
A full recovery led Quinn back to the wrestling mat, where he had not lost a match since the semi-finals of the 4A State Championships in his freshman year. Having won the heavyweight titles in 2006 and 2007, Quinn was attempting an individual three-peat in addition to keeping his multi-season undefeated streak going. Though South Carolina has had numerous three-time champions, his 86-0 record over his final three seasons of wrestling, including the 2008 championship, made him just the third ever wrestler in the state to go undefeated for three seasons, and the first since 1990.
Despite the satisfaction of achieving the ultimate goal that got him out of the hospital bed and back to the gym, the moment was bittersweet for Quinn. Knowing that it would be the last time he would don the singlet and headgear in which he earned an All-American Honorable Mention and was named the state’s 4A Senior Wrestler of the Year, he couldn’t help being a bit upset. “I loved wrestling and used so many things from wrestling on the football field, but I knew that football was my future.”
And what a bright future that has become. With several dozen scholarship offers in hand, Quinn narrowed his list down to a final three of Alabama, Auburn, and North Carolina. Not until the morning of his announcement did Quinn know what his decision would be. Academics playing the deciding factor, Robert Quinn was going to be a Tar Heel.
Arriving on campus in July, 2008 sporting a new mantra of “I got a second chance, so I’m going to take full advantage of it,” Quinn set out to earn a starting spot on a defensive line featuring several returning starters. Though he did not start the season opener against McNeese State, an injury to Darrius Massenburg opened up a starting spot for the second game of the season, an opportunity of which Quinn took full advantage.
In the first start of his collegiate career, a Thursday night nationally televised game at Rutgers in September, 2008, Quinn made his presence known with a bone-jarring hit that echoed louder than the boos from the Scarlet Knights crowd as the Tar Heels controlled the game from start to finish. On first-and-ten from the midfield line, nine minutes into the second quarter, Rutgers quarterback Mike Teel handed the ball off to running back Mason Robinson. Robinson did not make it back to midfield. In an apparent miscommunication along the Rutgers offensive line, Quinn came right up the middle completely unblocked. The guard pulled, the fullback was running a route instead of blocking, and Quinn tagged Robinson with a hit that has been immortalized with nicknames such as “The Russian Hammer” for its sheer ruthlessness, moving the chains back three yards and the Scarlet Knights’ morale back another ten.
Quinn finished out the season as a starter and finished third in voting for the ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year after totaling 34 tackles, two sacks, and two forced fumbles. Perhaps more impressive than that recognition was his being awarded the ACC’s Brian Picollo Award as the conference’s most courageous player. Earning such accolades just a year removed from sudden brain surgery is nearly as amazing as it was courageous.
His 2009 season was even more impressive thanks to some noticeably added bulk and his experience starting as a freshman. Quinn finished tied for second place in voting for ACC Defensive Player of the Year after finishing first in tackles for loss (17), second in the league in sacks (11), and second in forced fumbles (six).
Not only did his statistics go up during his sophomore campaign, but he won one game on a play that won’t show up on his stat sheet. Tied 10-10 at Connecticut in the fourth quarter of a sloppy, rain-soaked affair, the Tar Heels defense had pushed the Huskies back near their own goal line. On 3rd and 22 from the Huskies’ eight-yard line, with just 1:32 on the clock, Quinn got past senior guard Dan Ryan and into the backfield. To keep Quinn from sacking quarterback Cody Endres, Ryan held Quinn in the end zone, a penalty resulting in a safety and two points. The Tar Heels won 12-10.
His explosiveness off the line gets him into the backfield at an uncanny speed. As a sophomore, his 11 sacks and 17 tackles for loss totaled 214 yards against the offense (compared to Defensive Player of the Year Derrick Morgan’s 190 yards on 12 sacks and 16 tackles for a loss.) If you’re looking for a preseason front-runner for the 2010 Defensive Player of the Year, Quinn’s your guy.
So with the 2010 season approaching rapidly, a season Tar Heel fans view as a potentially program-defining one, you can be sure that all eyes will be on Quinn. Well, maybe not all eyes, due to the Tar Heels’ depth on defense, but the quarterback would be remiss if he doesn’t have at least one eye on number 42 because… Because he’s coming.