No Stage Fright for Zaccheaus in First Year
Sept. 18, 2015
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Most of his football teammates and coaches at the University of Virginia simply call him O, and that’s okay with Olamide Zaccheaus. But he’s happy for people to address him by his given name, provided they pronounce it correctly: Oh-lama-day.
His parents lived in Nigeria before moving to the United States, and his name is of African origin. It means “a blessing has come,” Zaccheaus said.
For UVa, the arrival in July of Zaccheaus, a 5-8, 185-pound wide receiver, was indeed a blessing. One of three true freshmen to play for the Cavaliers this season, along with linebacker C.J. Stalker and wideout David Eldridge, Zaccheaus has added speed and quickness to an offense looking for playmakers.
Virginia (0-2) hosts William & Mary (1-0) at 3:30 p.m. Saturday at Scott Stadium. The Tribe is the only team from the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision the Wahoos will face this season.
“We have to approach it the same way we approach any other game,” Zaccheaus said this week. “It’s just the next game on the schedule, and because of that it’s the biggest game.”
Zaccheaus (pronounced Za-key-us) is only a few months removed from St. Joseph’s Preparatory School in Philadelphia, but that’s not apparent watching him on the field. First-year jitters have not been a problem for No. 33.
“The game’s not too big for him,” UVa offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild said. “You’re talking about a kid that went from high school football to playing in the Rose Bowl and playing against Notre Dame, and it didn’t faze him a bit.”
Zaccheaus made a brief appearance in Virginia’s opener, a 34-16 loss to No. 10 UCLA in Pasadena, Calif., but his role grew last weekend against No. 8 Notre Dame.
On the first of UVa’s two fourth-quarter touchdown drives at Scott Stadium, Zaccheaus gained 35 yards on a jet sweep. That’s the longest run by a Cavalier this season.
“I thought he was gone,” Virginia tailback Albert Reid said, “but he got tripped up.”
Zaccheaus finished with 39 yards rushing (on two carries) and 25 receiving (on two catches), a tantalizing glimpse of the skills that made him such a force at St. Joseph’s Prep, where he played for head coach Gabe Infante.
“I think my high school did a really good job of preparing me,” Zaccheaus said. “Coach Infante, he does a good job with all his athletes in making them better people, better men and making them know how to prepare for everything, outside of football too.”
It would be impossible to overstate how highly Infante thinks of Zaccheaus, who helped the Hawks win Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association state Class AAAA titles in 2013 and ’14.
“You got yourself a very, very, very special person,” Infante said in a phone interview Thursday. “Forget athlete. You got an extremely special person.”
Infante watched the ABC broadcast of Virginia’s 34-27 loss to Notre Dame, and nothing he saw from Zaccheaus was a revelation.
What surprised Infante was that few colleges “could figure it out during the recruiting process,” he said. “I’ve actually had a school call me and apologize after watching O run on Saturday, saying that they mis-evaluated him.
“I’ve been doing this a long time. From the time I saw him run in grade school, I knew he was going to be special. I don’t understand why everybody who’s an expert couldn’t see that. So my hat’s off to the University of Virginia and their coaching staff for recognizing what was very apparent.”
Zaccheaus primarily played tailback at St. Joe’s Prep, and that’s where he lined up when Virginia opened training camp early last month. It didn’t take long for Zaccheaus to show “he’s got exceptional skills,” head coach Mike London recalled Monday.
And so when a series of injuries left the `Hoos short-handed at wide receiver, Zaccheaus was an obvious candidate for a position change. As a St. Joe’s Prep senior, he’d caught 29 passes for 388 yards and four touchdowns.
“O has exceptionally soft and strong hands,” Infante said. “He’s very, very good in the slot. But I think you’d be pigeonholing him if you thought that that’s all he could do. He’s exceptional [at tailback, too]. He’s just a very, very dynamic athlete.”
“He’s a talented kid, so we’re going to find a role for him,” Fairchild said. “Obviously, if a guy has some run-after-catch ability that can help us in the run game as a receiver, that adds to the things you can do offensively, and O certainly brings that to the table.”
Asked if he might eventually return to tailback, Zaccheaus said, “I’m not sure. I’m just taking it one step at a time at this point, to be honest.”
That’s the best approach, said Marques Hagans, who coaches Virginia’s wide receivers.
“The team can change this week,” Hagans said. “The team could change next week. It can change the following year. But right now we’re just focusing day to day.”
Born and raised in New Jersey, Zaccheaus attended public schools through the eighth grade. When his mother, Yimbra Mozimo, learned about St. Joe’s Prep, across the Delaware River from the family’s home in South Jersey, she saw it as a tremendous opportunity for Zaccheaus. He resisted at first.
“I didn’t want to go there,” he recalled. “My mom made me go.”
She got her wish, and for that Zaccheaus is thankful. “It was definitely worth it,” he said. “My mom knows what she’s doing.”
Zaccheaus has an older brother, Ola, who attends Clark Atlanta University in Georgia. Their mother speaks broken English, Infante said, and the family has faced financial hardship. Even so, Zaccheaus flourished at St. Joseph’s Prep after a slow start there.
“The young man is a genius,” Infante said. “He’s not of average intelligence. He’s extremely intelligent. He’d just never really had the opportunity till he got here. When it hit, it hit. He’s very, very capable.
“Life forced him to grow up fast. What you have is a man. He’s not a boy. We preach confidence and maturity, and he has that in spades.”
Other St. Joseph’s Prep graduates at UVa include senior Kevin Oberlies, who was a basketball standout at the Philadelphia school. Oberlies is now a student-manager for the men’s basketball team at Virginia.
“Whenever I told people [back in Philly] I was at UVa, they’d say, `Watch out for Zaccheaus. He’s a great kid,’ ” Oberlies said this week.
Zaccheaus, whose classes this semester include calculus, plans to major in computer science. He chose Virginia over such schools as Temple, Miami (Fla.), Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Old Dominion.
“When I got this offer and I came and visited, it was really similar to my high school, so I just felt like it was a good [fit],” said Zaccheaus, who committed in July 2014. “I think I made a good decision.”
Zaccheaus rooms with classmate Chris Sharp, a tailback from The Hun School in Princeton, N.J. When the Cavaliers’ true freshmen are together, Zaccheaus said, they often talk about changing the culture of the football program.
The freshmen know Virginia has ended a season in a bowl game only once under London, and that was in 2011. For the team’s seniors, the window is closing.
“We owe it to them, because they don’t have much time left,” Zaccheaus said. “We want to get it on the right track this year and then just keep building on it.”
Expect No. 33 to be an integral part of that process.
“He has that calm about him,” Hagans said. “His eyes don’t get too big. He just loves to play, and the outside influences don’t really get to him, so that’s good to see in a freshman.”
When he first arrived at UVa, Zaccheaus said, “I was chilling around, just trying to see where I fit and all that. But I feel really comfortable now, so I’m just being myself. When I get comfortable, I open up.”