Sept. 1, 2008
This story originally appeared in Cal's Kickoff Game Progam on Aug. 30, 2008.
By John Sudsbury, California Media Relations
Muscles taut and ready, eyes focused on the opponent, stomping his feet like a bull preparing to charge, Zack Follett was waiting for his opportunity to make a big hit. However, it was not 21-year old Zack Follett, University of California all-star linebacker. This was eight-year old Zack Follett, circa 1995. And he was not on the football field waiting for a sack; he was standing on third base, preparing to steal home in a Little League game. And like many present-day quarterbacks, the opposing catcher had no idea what's about to happen.
"The catcher is standing with the ball, waiting for Zack," Follett's mother Naomi remembers. "Zack took him out, the catcher flew five feet into the air and Zack was ejected from the game. He excelled in all sports, baseball, basketball, volleyball, but he played every one of them like a football player - basketball, baseball, volleyball. He is instinctually a football player. That's the sport he has a passion for."
While the big hit on the Little League catcher stands out in his mother's mind, Follett's memory identifies another youngster taking a big hit, this time when Zack was a fifth-grader - at least this time his unsuspecting opponent had full football gear.
"I'll never forget one hit I had on a sixth-grader," Follett said. "That's when I knew that I might be good at hitting people on the football field."
While Follett's history seems to show him dealing out the blows, he took his fair share of big hits as well. The youngest of a large extended family, he refused to be left out of any activities with his older cousins. And the cousins, most notably Adam Zakarian, who is seven years older, didn't hold back, tossing young Zack into pools or bouncing the nuisance out of the way.
"I was like the annoying little brother, always in the way, and the only way I could play with them was to play as hard as I could," Follett said. "Now I use that same intensity on the football field and just go all out."
His passion and his ability the make plays on the field has turned into tremendous benefit for the Golden Bears and their fans. While Cal has had its share of stars in the Jeff Tedford era, over the last three years, when the Bear defense takes the field, eyes invariably turn to #56 in blue and gold.
"My #56 jersey is for sale this year," Follett said. "So I want to make sure the fans that spent their hard-earned money get their money's worth."
Through Follett's career, the hard-hitting Clovis product has always given Cal fans their money's worth. In 2005, he earned Freshman All-America honors and as a sophomore he earned All-Pac-10 recognition despite starting just one game. Then last season, he was again recognized by the Pac-10 after leading the Bears with 12.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks. In his first three years, Follett's ferocious play has netted eight forced fumbles.
While many of Follett's big plays stand out vividly in the minds of Cal football fans, it is tough to top last year's season-opener against Tennessee, one of the most anticipated games in recent history in Berkeley. Follett whipped an already frenetic crowd into an even greater frenzy on the Volunteers' first drive of the game. Over 70,000 fans saw what Tennessee's Erik Ainge did not - the 6-1, 238-pounder beat his man around the edge and had a clear shot at the quarterback's blind side. And like that long-ago Little League catcher, Ainge went flying as Follett's hit seemingly folded the quarterback in half, with the ball bouncing towards fellow linebacker Worrell Williams. Follett's classmate scooped up the loose ball and raced to the end zone for a 7-0 Cal lead en route to a 45-31 victory.
"When the play was called and I knew I would have an opportunity," Follett said. "The running back didn't block to my side and I saw the lane the lane open and knew I would have a free shot. I just ran as fast as I could and when I saw him pump-fake, I knew it was over. Whenever a blitz is called, I am always excited because I know something big can happen."
Despite the success throughout his career, Follett credits linebackers coach Kenwick Thompson with making him into a complete player over the last two years.
"I have improved a lot with Coach Thompson's help," Follett said. "He has taught me to do my job every single play. Playing SAM [strong-side linebacker], nobody's supposed to get outside me, and nobody did last year. I take pride in little things like that, things that fans may not see, but it's my responsibility. Coach Thompson has taught all of us [linebackers] a lot as far as the little things and technical things. As far as play-making ability, that's just something that has come natural to me."
Due to the increased overall ability of Follett and the outstanding talent in depth of Cal's linebacker corps - players like Follett, Worrell Williams, Anthony Felder, Eddie Young, Mike Mohamed and Devin Bishop, the Cal coaching staff made the decision to alter their approach to get as many of those hard-hitting linebackers as possible on the field. The Bears will primarily play in a 3-4 defensive alignment in 2008 - three defensive linemen with four linebackers - as opposed to the 4-3 of past seasons.
"With the 3-4, we can do more things with Zack," defensive coordinator Bob Gregory said. "We can be more creative with him. It's a balanced defense so opponents won't know what side he's coming off. And we'll have good pressure guys coming off the other side, which will help him also."
"The 3-4 defense is really going to increase my role," Follett said. "Last year, I was eating up blocks when I played outside. We tried different schemes to give me the chance to pressure the quarterback, but now with the 3-4, it's inevitable that I'll have my chances to go after the passer and go off the edge for sacks. I had 5.5 sacks the last two years, but that should be two games now with this defense. Anything less than double digits this season will be a disappointment."
While Follett has personal goals, he always goes back to helping to lead the team to success. Through his off-season work-ethic, he has developed into a team leader, focusing on "hunger" - keeping everyone on the team hungry for success.
"This team can be a great team," Follett said. "We have talent and the leadership. The biggest difference from last year is that we already had guys who were great and they were maintaining their level. Now we have guys who are striving to be great and giving all their effort to be great. Everybody is a lot more hungry. I think the fans can expect a lot of excitement."
Included among those fans in 2008 will be Follett's biggest fans, his extended family led by his mother and his father, Bob.
"My mom and dad have always taken care of me," Zack said. "I just love playing football and they have helped me and supported me the whole way. But my older sister, Lindsay, deserves a lot of credit as well. She is my only sibling and she took most of the blunt force of my linebacker skills growing up. I never have to protect her with guys because the way I trained her, she can take care of herself!"
Thankfully for the youth of California - and for his sister - Follett has grown into a man and only utilizes his linebacking skills on the college football gridiron, punishing and upending opponents of the Golden Bears.
"I've never worried about Zack on the field," his mother said. "Both sides of the family are no-fear types so our kids are lost causes. If you think about yourself, or your kids, getting hurt, you can make yourself sick, so I don't worry."
She'll leave the worrying to opposing coaches, trying to find a way to protect their quarterbacks from the relentless Follett pressure every Saturday.