by Chuck Pool (cpool@edu) -
Given his weekly assignment, which entails taking on multiple members of the opposition's offensive line in order to create clear pathways to the ball for his teammates with little hope of a large collection of stats of his own, you'd think that Zach Abercrumbia's days would be filled with a no-nonsense approach to his blue collar assignment.
Late Field Goal Stems Owls Comeback Bid
Ricky Segers nailed a 25-yard field goal as time expired to thwart a stellar second half comeback by Rice and give Old Dominion a memorable debut as a member of Conference USA with a 45-42 win at Rice Stadium on Saturday.
Make no mistake, the redshirt sophomore from Dallas' Skyline High School is most definitely all business from the first whistle to the last each Saturday. But he also approaches football and school with a definite eye on any opportunity to hit you with a reason to smile.
That was evident from his earliest days on campus.
Each August, the athletic department hosts a welcome lunch with those freshman student-athletes who have arrived for the start of their training camps and members of the Rice community. One of the rites of passage each year is when each freshman is asked to introduce themselves and tell one fact about themselves that no one might know.
In August of 2015 when Abercrumbia took his turn at the microphone, he proclaimed that no one knew that he could sing like a bird only to quickly prove that his singing talents were best left unknown and unheard. However, his sense of humor was of the highest order.
"You have to be able to make fun of yourself sometimes or otherwise life is going to beat you down," Abercrumbia said. "There are always serious situations you have to be prepared for, but anytime I can make light of a situation or have some fun, I'll take advantage of that."
He can be counted on to provide some additional energy at times during the weekly routine, but only when the time is right.
"It's always a fine line, especially with all the younger guys we have on this team," he said. "That's why whenever a coach is talking, I am all business. You don't want to have the younger players see you making light of a situation. I might be able to get away with a few things, but I know that gives the wrong message to the younger guys, so I cut it in the bud and keep full attention on the coach or the teacher in class. Now when we are out here at practice and the opportunity is right to make somebody laugh, I'll do it," he said with a grin.
Abercrumbia bounced back from an injury shortened 2016 season, one that thankfully came to an end when the possibility of taking a redshirt year was still available, to become a steady force in the middle of the Owls 3-4 alignment. His efforts are best evidenced in the 143 tackles that Emmanuel Ellerbee and DJ Green have compiled behind him.
He has also flashed tackling skills of his own when opportunities arose, racking up 32 tackles through 10 games (seven more than his combined total from his first 16 games), including four tackles for loss. His production has risen, ironically as the result of not making it a priority.
"My job may be one that may not get a lot of recognition but it's an important one on the field," he noted. "It's to control the line of scrimmage and keep the linebackers clean so that they can be able to make plays, to hold down the interior of the line so that nothing is coming up the middle and then get after the quarterback when I can.
"This is the ultimate team sport. If you have a true brotherhood, you have to be able to be happy for your brothers and know that as long as I am doing the job to the best of my ability, that's giving our team the best chance to win, regardless of if you are getting your name in the paper or not," he added.
Originally, Abercrumbia was ticketed to back up Christian Covington as a true freshman, but by the time he signed his letter of intent in February of 2015, Covington had decided to declare for the NFL Draft, creating a much larger role for the true freshman.
He had to learn quickly on the job, seeing action in 11 of 12 games and he looked forward to leveraging those experiences to make huge strides in 2016 only to see his season cut short by an injury after four games. He gained an equally valuable bit of experience while watching from the sidelines over the final two months last year.
"You never know how much you really love something until it is taken away from you," Abercrumbia stated. "I know that first hand from last year. You appreciate it even more when you get the chance to get back to doing what you love. You never want to take it for granted. When you see other guys getting hurt and not able to play this year or maybe never again, and you know how much they love it, you want to treat this opportunity to play with respect."
This season, he has seen several of his fellow 2015 defensive line recruits, Blain Padgett and Carl Thompson, as well as senior Graysen Schantz sidelined by their own injuries and he has tried to bolster their spirits as they watch from the sidelines.
"The first day any one of my teammates gets some tough injury news, I always try to give them a day to themselves," Abercrumbia said. "But soon after that, I try to find time to talk to them and give them some of the things I went through last year and some of the things they might face. Try to give them some ideas of things to do and not to do. You can't attack any obstacle in life, it's just how you chose to look at it. If you take the negative and look at it like it's going to be dreary, then it will. If you take it as an obstacle that will make you better as you overcome it, then that is what it will do."
On the field, Abercrumbia credits his improved play to defensive line coach Frank Okam, whose message resonates over and over.
"From the first day I met him, he's said that God is in the details. You have to be able to fine tune different things and get those little things right because those things will compile to be the bigger things down the road," Abercrumbia explained.
"Watching film every day might seem like a little thing, but then you get in the game and see a formation that you remember from earlier in the week might give you a little quicker jump. The little things, like keeping your thumbs up when you are pressing can keep you injury free, or staying on edges can be the difference between three pressures in a game or three sacks. He always stresses the details because at the end of the week, they will build up to something greater."