Sept. 29, 2016
CHARLOTTESVILLE — At 5-8, 190 pounds, wide receiver Olamide Zaccheaus is one of the smaller players on the University of Virginia football team. It’s difficult, however, to overstate his value to the Cavaliers.
A sophomore from south New Jersey, Zaccheaus has 22 catches for 298 yards and three touchdowns this season — all team highs. (Senior wideout Keeon Johnson also has three receiving TDs.) And he’s produced that in three-and-a-half games.
Head coach Bronco Mendenhall held Zaccheaus out of the first half of UVA’s opener for an undisclosed violation of team rules. Zaccheaus said he’s worked hard to earn back the trust of the coaching staff.
“It was just a humbling experience for me,” he said after practice Thursday morning. “I just had to get my priorities straight and make sure I was on top of everything I needed to do.”
Zaccheaus, known in the program simply as O, is coming off perhaps his best performance as a Cavalier. In Virginia’s 49-35 win over Central Michigan last weekend at Scott Stadium, he caught eight passes for 141 yards and two touchdowns, and he ran twice for 19 yards. His second TD reception — an 82-yarder with 9:36 left — stopped a run of 28 unanswered points by the Chippewas.
“O is O,” Mendenhall said.
As the season progresses, Mendenhall said, the coaching staff is “getting more clear about the roles and the usage of our offensive personnel.” That’s meant more touches for running backs Albert Reid and Taquan Mizzell and receivers Zaccheaus, Keeon Johnson and Doni Dowling.
Zaccheaus said he’s never lobbied to get the ball more.
“I just continue to work,” he said. “That’s just always how I’ve been. I was raised never to complain about anything. I can’t control how many touches I get or whatever, so I just control what I can control, which is my effort and how hard I work and how hard I practice.”
Zaccheaus is one of the Wahoos’ inside receivers, and his position coach is Robert Anae, who’s also the team’s offensive coordinator. Anae came to UVA from BYU with Mendenhall in December.
“At first, obviously, we were just feeling each other out,” Zaccheaus said. “Now I feel like we have a great understanding of who each of us is and how we react to each other. We’re just building that chemistry, and it continues to grow.”
In its ACC opener, Virginia (1-3 overall) meets Duke (2-2, 0-1) at 12:30 p.m. Saturday in Durham, N.C. The Cavaliers’ record may not reflect it yet, but the team’s culture has changed dramatically under the new staff, Zaccheaus said.
“I feel like everybody in the whole organization is just on the same page, as far as mentally and philosophically,” he said.
Zaccheaus’ parents came to the United States from Nigeria. His given name, pronounced Oh-lama-day, is of African origin and means “a blessing has come.” His last name is pronounced Za-key-us.
As a true freshman last season, Zaccheaus returned 28 kickoffs for 541 yards, with a long of 54. He has yet to be used in that role this season.
MUTUAL RESPECT: Mendenhall serves on the American Football Coaches Association’s board of trustees. At board meetings, Mendenhall said, he sits between Duke’s David Cutcliffe and Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald, and “I’ve become friends with both of them and really admire both of them. They are bright and articulate and have depth and substance and have designed really nice programs for each of their places specifically.”
Asked about Mendenhall on the ACC coaches’ teleconference, Cutcliffe said, “We are like-minded people.”
Mendenhall called Cutcliffe “one of my favorite people that’s also a coach. When I was still the coach at BYU — before UVA ever came on the radar — I was looking for maybe similar approaches and similar settings with people that I thought had character and integrity and were getting the most out of their players and matching a program to a place, allowing that place to have success.”
In the summer of 2015, Mendenhall visited Cutcliffe at Duke and Fitzgerald at Northwestern.
“I was really impressed with the depth, the substance and [their ability to not only] get the most out of young people, but also how to get the most out of them in a specific place and environment that really emphasizes academics and character,” Mendenhall said, “and I thought both, and still think both, do a really nice job.”
Duke is coming off a 38-35 win over Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. Cutcliffe is known for his offensive expertise, and Mendenhall, also UVA’s defensive coordinator, said he understands why.
“It’s the first time that I’ve been able to study an offense that’s been led by him,” Mendenhall said, “and it doesn’t take more than three or four or five plays or one series to say, `Oh, no wonder they are good.’ “
Dowling was injured in the Sept. 3 opener against Richmond, but has not missed a game. Benkert suffered his injury Sept. 17 at Connecticut, but finished that game, practiced every day the following week and then passed for a school-record 421 yards against Central Michigan.
The pain is “tough when you’re not in the middle of a play,” Benkert said. “When you’re in the middle of a play you’re not really thinking about it too much. But when we’re getting the play in from the sideline it was a little bit difficult the first few days. But I’m getting used to it, and it’s getting better every day, so it’s getting easier.”
Mendenhall said it’s “always great to have an example, especially at a position like quarterback, where someone is beat up or is in pain and just continues on and doesn’t miss a beat in terms of their preparation. So I think it’s really accelerated our culture of what injuries look like and what you can do with them.”
Asked about Benkert, Dowling said, “I admire toughness and perseverance, just because I’ve been through it, and it means something to me when someone can put what they’re going through aside for the [good] of the team.”
As for himself, Dowling said, “Some days I go out and I feel perfect. Some days I’m a little sorer than others. But it’s more of a mental battle. Injuries are something I’ve had throughout [college]. My body heals and I get my strength back and everything.”
He’s learning, Dowling acknowledged, that he doesn’t need to seek out contact on every play.
“But being tough is in my nature,” he said. “It’s just who I am as a football player. That’s one of the things I take pride in. I don’t care if I’m not the fastest or I’m not the tallest. That doesn’t mean anything to me. But how tough I am is something that I can monitor every day.”
INSPIRATIONAL LEADER: When he’s not in the game, Dowling is one of the most vocal and demonstrative Cavaliers on the sideline.
“We understand that we’re going to have highs and lows, and I understand my role is not [only] as a wide receiver, it’s an energy source,” Dowling said. “I try to bring contagious energy.”
Matt Johns has excelled in that role too, Dowling said. Virginia’s starting quarterback in 2015, Johns is one of Benkert’s backups this season. (Johns also holds on extra points and field goals.)
“I love the presence of Matt,” Dowling said. “It’s tough being here and having a starting position and going back to not playing much. But he helps Kurt, he helps me, and he’s really a team player, and you can tell that he’s not bigger than the system, and he knows that. It’s a real ego check, but I love it. I love him and what he still brings to our team. He’s still a leader on our team, and whenever he says anything, people stop and listen.”
VERSATILE: The eight true freshmen Virginia has played this season include 6-3, 210-pound Joe Reed, a graduate of rural Randolph-Henry High School whose speed, size and athleticism allow him to play multiple positions.
Against Central Michigan, Reed gained 18 yards on his first college reception, and he had a 47-yard kickoff return.
An injury limited Reed’s participation in training camp last month, but the Cavaliers’ coaches “knew right away that he was going to be able to help in his first year,” Mendenhall said.
ANOTHER OPPORTUNITY: Since winning at NC State on Nov. 3, 2012, Virginia has dropped 17 consecutive games away from Scott Stadium. That streak began before most of the Cavaliers’ current players joined the program, and they’d love for it to end Saturday at Wallace Wade Stadium.
“I know as a program we haven’t won in a long time on the road, but it doesn’t feel like that’s something looming over our heads or anything,” said Benkert, who transferred to UVA from East Carolina after the 2015-16 academic year.
“We’re just ready to go out there and play hard … and execute. We’ve been through a lot already in these first four games and I think it’s helped us kind of define who we are.”