Defensive line coach Bill Kirelawich sat in his customary post-practice seat at Kindall/Sancet Stadium after a recent session with his cigar burning in his right hand.
He was breaking down each of his guys, and it was standard response after standard response — until he got to one player.
“He just works and works and works, and has been making plays all spring for us,” Kirelawich said. “He’s maybe stood out more than anyone.”
He wasn’t talking about former Boise State Bronco Jeff Worthy, junior-college transfer Jerod Cody, redshirt Luca Bruno or upperclassmen Dan Pettinato and Reggie Gilbert.
The veteran coach was referring to Parker Zellers.
Walk-on Parker Zellers, and he isn’t the only coach enamored of the nose tackle.
“He caught my eye in the fall when he was on the scout team giving our guys fits,” coach Rich Rodriguez said. “He’s an undersized guy that tries his tail off. He has a chance to play a big role for us. I don’t think the offensive line likes going against him because he goes so hard on every snap, which I really like having.
“He plays with the type of attitude that we want all of our guys to.”
OK, so who is this guy, and could he really be a factor for the Wildcats?
Zellers, who redshirted in 2013 and has four seasons of eligibility remaining, talked to the Star recently to give us some answers.
- Height, weight:
- 6-feet-1-inch, 255 pounds
- High school:
- Scottsdale Notre Dame Prep
- Set a Notre Dame record for sacks in a season as a junior with 10. Followed that up with 8½ as a senior. He had 123 tackles total during his final two seasons with the Saints. The defensive lineman was a two-time All-Conference selection and an All-State pick as a senior.
- How Arizona found him:
- Arizona had a pair of coaches at a Notre Dame-Chaparral game during Zellers’ senior season. They noticed him making things happen on the defensive line, and the next morning Zellers had a message from UA director of player personnel and on-campus recruiting Matt Dudek about being a preferred walk-on.
- His other options:
- Zellers said it was “Division I or bust” for him out of high school. Of course, the only problem was that he didn’t have any offers. His dream school
- believe it or not
- was Iowa State. His mom and dad are both from Iowa, and he has other family there. He initially talked to the Cyclones about a scholarship, then about a preferred walk-on spot, but they didn’t have much interest. He eventually drew interest from Arizona State about walking on, but decided to attend Arizona.
- His own words:
- “I knew the opportunities I would have here, and I wanted to make the best of them. ASU was technically offering the same thing, but I had a buddy a year older than me, and he kept doing what they were telling him, and they kept cutting him. Here, they talked about all the walk-ons who have made an impact, and it was really intriguing. I made the right decision.”
- How it hurt him:
- When Zellers was a senior at Notre Dame, he weighed in the 240s. Despite being listed on the roster at 6-feet-1, Zellers admits, “I’m probably 6-feet, even with shoes on.” Coaches have consistently said he was too small to play on the defensive line, and might want to look at FCS and Division II schools.
- How it affects his future:
- Kirelawich and Rodriguez are high on Zellers, but at 6-feet-1, 255, it may be a stretch to think he can be an every-down player. Still, he could be a rotation player and an energy guy for the line.
- How he’s getting bigger:
- Zellers likely won’t grow anytime soon, but he is working to put on pounds. He said he’d like to be around 265 for the season, and should be able to get there.
- How he was noticed:
- Like Rodriguez said, Zellers was first discovered by coaches in the fall. Since he was redshirting and wasn’t in the rotation at defensive line, Zellers was assigned to the scout team. He had to battle offensive-line starters Steven Gurrola, Chris Putton and Cayman Bundage on the interior. Zellers made more than a few plays, and was consistently strong against an experienced group of linemen.
- How he did it:
- Zellers has soaked up everything Kirelawich has said. Even when he wasn’t getting snaps with the rest of the defensive linemen as a walk-on freshman, Zellers said he could “still get mental reps and pay attention to what (Kirelawich) was teaching by listening and learning.” Zellers said he’s able to get in the backfield a decent amount and wreak some havoc on the quarterbacks and running backs.
- Why he can really help:
- Kirelawich said he “doesn’t care if (Zellers) is a walk-on or not”; he wants players who can make an impact. With four years left to continue to get bigger and improve, it’s realistic to expect Zellers to make some plays for the UA at some point. It’s also worth considering that he’s trying to replace Tevin Hood. Like Zellers, Hood was a walk-on from a Phoenix powerhouse high school.