Maryland’s coaches have been more than pleased with Zach Kerr’s work at defensive tackle. The sophomore has rotated in as a reserve and his play has been one reason why the Terps are so stout against the run.
Zach Kerr could help spark Maryland's kickoff return unit. Photo by Christopher Blunck.
But while he’s excelled at his usual position, nothing he does there will match the spectacle and peculiarity of the role he picked up against Wake Forest. The 6-foot-2 Kerr, who coach Ralph Friedgen said has lost weight and is “down to a svelte 330,” is the new lead blocker on kickoff returns.
He lines up at the 25-yard line in front of Maryland’s returners and acts as a one-man wedge. And in his first two kickoffs Saturday, he had two crushing blocks that were a hit in the film room.
“He’s an instant-impact player on special teams,” said Charles Bankins, the unit’s coordinator.
Kerr isn’t exactly sure how he got the job, but the coaches felt his size and athleticism—he’s agile and supposedly runs a 4.8-second 40-yard dash—could help jumpstart a unit that averages 17.6 yards a return, 11th in the ACC and 116th out of 120 teams nationally.
“It’s all about getting the return started, and he’s at the point and if he can get that started for the returner, we have a chance,” Bankins said. “We have problems this year getting it started. When you lose a Cory Jackson and Tommy Galt and those type of players that at least got the return started—we had two returns (for touchdowns) at this point last year, and we don’t have any this year. He’s going to be big as we go down the stretch.”
Whether his presence leads to tangible results remains to be seen, but his presence alone is turning heads. Bankins and Friedgen said they’ve never had a player that big on kickoff returns. Wake Forest’s players and Kerr’s teammates had to do double takes.
“Late in the game I was looking over at the Wake Forest sideline and I see some of the players like, What is he doing out there? Look how big that dude is out there,” Kerr said. “I was like, Yeah, yeah. I figured I would get that much.”
“It’s a scary sight,” said cornerback Trenton Hughes, who briefly returned kicks this season. “I know if I’m on the kickoff team and I got to wedge bust and see Zach, I’m not wedge-busting him, I’m going around him. … It seems like it’s almost illegal.”
Once Wake Forest kicked off, though, that’s when the fun started. On Maryland’s first return late in the first quarter, Da’Rel Scott muffed the kick and was able to get only five yards. But Kerr had a block that Friedgen said would have sprung Scott for a big return.
“The crazy thing about the first one is, I knew I hit the guy but I didn’t know he fell,” Kerr said. “I seen him, I was like, He’s running at me. I’m like, Is he crazy? First I was nervous about it, I don’t want the guy to try to give me move and I whiff. Then I’m like, This guy’s running at me. Before I know it he’s right there, and then I hit him and I see nothing but grass in front of me.”
“I know that a lot of guys they have on special teams that are wedge-busters, they’re not always all there anyway,” nose tackle A.J. Francis said. “But you really got to be not all there to go at Zach. That’s a big boy. That’s 340 pounds of man. And he’s fast, too.”
“I feel sorry for the young man from Wake Forest that came down there,” Bankins said.
“I mean he annihilated him,” Friedgen said.
Kerr’s second return was a bit more of an adventure. He tracked the kick through the air and prepared to set up a block. But the wind took the ball toward Kerr, curving more and more until it was right above him. The ball ricocheted off his chest and Maryland recovered, avoiding a turnover. He made up for it, though, with a plenty-vicious one-armed block.
“He doesn’t even mean to mess them up,” Hughes said. “He just messes them up just with touch.”
“He hit one guy with his hand and about killed him,” said Friedgen, who, perhaps jokingly, added that he talked to offensive coordinator James Franklin about putting Kerr in the goal-line package.
Kerr said he’s looking forward to continuing his role on kickoff. The next step in his adventure there is, of course, his first return.
It’s something Francis, not surprisingly, is eagerly anticipating.
“We were talking about it the other day,” he said. “He’s like, ‘Man, if I catch a kickoff, I’m going to pitch it back.’ I’m like, ‘Zach, who are you lying to? You’re going to catch it. You’re going to start to run. The first person’s going to miss the tackle because they’re going to try to arm tackle you and you’re big as hell. You’re going to run through the arm tackle and you’re going to realize the only people in front of you is the student section. You’re going to put on the 4.6 and you’re going to get loose.’
“If Zach returns a kickoff for a touchdown, I might—I am going to get a 15-yard penalty. I’m probably going to throw my helmet on the field and run out there. It’ll be crazy.”
Kerr, though less enthusiastic, has his vision as well.
“I’m anticipating them trying to take my legs out. In my head I see me jumping over the dude, but we ain’t going to go there right now,” he said.
“But if I get the ball I won’t disappoint.”