By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE – He wasn’t able to watch the ESPN2 broadcast of the game Saturday, but Micah Kiser saw Zane Zandier’s line from Virginia’s visit to Vanderbilt Stadium.
In his first collegiate start, Zandier, a 6-3, 232-pound sophomore, recorded a game-high 10 tackles and had 1.5 sacks in UVA’s 45-31 win over Ohio in Nashville, Tenn. He also excelled on special teams.
“He’s a tough Pittsburgh kid who loves playing football,” said Kiser, a rookie with the Los Angeles Rams, “and most importantly he plays with a swagger and a confidence that you can’t fake.
“From his hair to him now rocking the cowboy-collar neck roll, he looks the part, and now I’m glad to see him playing the part as well.”
In 2017, after shifting early in training camp from outside linebacker to inside linebacker, Zandier served as an understudy to Kiser, an All-American who anchored the Wahoos’ 3-4 defense.
When head coach Bronco Mendenhall said “that I was moving and going to be behind Micah, it was kind of like, ‘Wow, this is going to be awesome, being able to see what he does every single day with film work and how he practices,’ ” Zandier recalled Monday at the McCue Center.
“As a very impressionable first-year, just being able to understand everything he did on a daily basis to be a great player, I think that was really important for me.”
He came to Mr. Jefferson’s University from, fittingly enough, Thomas Jefferson High School, where he starred at wide receiver and safety. He appeared in 11 games as a true freshman last season, making three tackles in limited playing time.
Zandier was “learning a lot from Micah but knowing he’d probably never see the field,” Mendenhall said. “So that was a unique transition for Zane, who then really had a good spring [and] a fantastic summer.”
In August, Zandier (pronounced Zann-Deer) was selected for The Dirty Dozen. That’s an honor bestowed annually by director of football performance and development Shawn Griswold on the 12 players – four each from three position groups — who perform best in the offseason strength and conditioning program.
“Hearing your name called in front of your teammates, and everybody just screaming and yelling and being so happy for you” was an experience he won’t soon forget, Zandier said. “It all paid off, all the work you put in over the summer, day in, day out, when the normal college student isn’t working every single day like that.”
No. 33 has “come a long, long way” since of the end of the 2017 season, inside linebackers coach Shane Hunter said Tuesday. “He’s put in the time. He’s worked hard. He’s done the things off the field, meaning in the weight room, and the extra things, the film study. Now physically he’s ready to go, but also mentally he’s ready to go.”
Zandier entered the season as the Cavaliers’ No. 3 inside linebacker, behind junior Jordan Mack and sixth-year senior Malcolm Cook. Zandier played the fourth quarter of UVA’s season opener against Richmond and then, after Cook went down with an injury, most of the fourth quarter a week later against Indiana.
In each case, Mendenhall said, Zandier’s “grades were exceptional.” With Cook unavailable for the Ohio game, Zandier started alongside Mack and again distinguished himself.
“He plays really hard and he’s physical and he makes a ton of plays,” co-defensive coordinator Kelly Poppinga said Tuesday, “and that’s kind of our criteria for guys to get on the field. You’ve got to be able to go out there and play with high effort and know what to do and go out and make plays, and he’s done that at a high level in every game.”
He had a few nerves as kickoff approached Saturday, Zandier said, “but as they say, as soon as you get the first hit, it’s just playing football.”
This was “the opportunity that I’ve been working for since I got here,” Zandier said. “It was just such a blessing to step up and make a few plays and just have a great time out there. It was a lot of fun.”
Hunter, who played inside linebacker for Mendenhall at BYU, said Zandier’s grade for the season, 76 percent, is among the highest of any linebacker at Virginia.
Still, Zandier wasn’t flawless against Ohio, Hunter said. “The game, it’s fast, and so it’s important for him to be able to slow down and work through what he needs to do. He’s just learning how to play inside ‘backer, so I think he’s going to continue to get better and better as he continues to work and put in the time.”
In the ACC opener for both teams, UVA (2-1) hosts Louisville (2-1) at 12:30 p.m. Saturday at Scott Stadium. Cook practiced some Tuesday morning, but his availability for Saturday is unclear.
Asked how he’ll divide the reps at inside linebacker when Cook returns, Hunter said, “It’s a great problem to have, because now I feel like there’s three guys that I trust in there. And the great thing, is all of the sudden they’re all pushing each other, and if one of them’s not doing his job, we put in another guy.
“I love the competition. The competition helps. Obviously, it makes everybody better on the inside.”
Zandier’s parents were born and raised in Pittsburgh, too, and he grew up rooting for the Steelers, the Penguins and the Pirates. He was not, however, a big fan of the University of Pittsburgh, which didn’t seriously pursue him for football.
In addition to UVA, schools such as Michigan State, West Virginia, Boston College and Syracuse offered scholarships to Zandier, whose father played football at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
“It’s a blessing to go through the recruiting process, but all the stuff that you deal with going through it definitely makes it a difficult and drawn-out process,” Zandier said.
Every time he visited UVA, however, Zandier felt at home. “The coaching staff just felt right, and with academics that are pretty unmatched here, it just felt like a good fit for me,” he said.
On one of their visits to Pittsburgh, Virginia coaches watched Zandier play basketball for Thomas Jefferson.
“I think I fouled out in the third quarter or something,” Zandier said, smiling. “Playing basketball, I wasn’t really too much of a talented scorer. I was more of a rebounder and a physical defender.”
Mendenhall can attest to that. He said Monday that Zandier “played basketball like a linebacker. I’ve told him that, so he’s not going to be mad at me.”
That aggressiveness, of course serves Zandier better on the football field.
“Zane’s just blooming into the player I knew he was going to be,” said classmate Joey Blount, a starting safety for UVA. “He’s crazy athletic. People don’t even know how athletic he is, and his nose for the ball is crazy. He’s hungry. He’s not afraid to hit anybody.”
Kiser said: “I’d say he perfectly fits the mold of the new-school linebacker. He’s a converted safety who can really run. I know he made a lot of gains in the weight room this winter and has definitely started to fill out his frame.”
Zandier, who lives with teammates PK Kier, Chris Glaser and Terrell Jana, is one of seven players on the defensive two-deep from the recruiting class that enrolled at UVA last year. The others are Blount, cornerback Darrius Bratton, lineman Mandy Alonso, and outside linebackers Charles Snowden, Elliott Brown and Matt Gahm.
“It’s so much fun,” Zandier said, “looking to your right and left and being on the field with those guys, and just running around and having fun and making plays. It means the world.”