Virginia football coach Bronco Mendenhall prides himself on running a program that does “hard, hard things.”
That’s part of what attracted inside linebacker Zane Zandier to Virginia.
Since his freshman year at Thomas Jefferson High School near Pittsburgh, hard things have become a way of life.
“I learned from a young age what it meant to be able to grind through the pain of working out and being able to push myself to levels I didn’t think possible,” Zandier said.
The end of August is an exciting time for football players. Games will soon be played and the trials and tribulations of summer conditioning are in the past. But for players at Thomas Jefferson, the end of summer came with one last hill to climb.
Thomas Jefferson is coached by former University of Pittsburgh offensive lineman Bill Cherpak, who prides himself on having the most conditioned team in the state. Before the season officially begins, his players have to face “The Hill.”
With temperatures in the mid 90s and everyone’s legs already heavy from weeks of workouts, it doesn’t take many sprints up and down the steep hill next to the Jaguars’ stadium before players begin gasping for air and looking for a lifeline. Zandier wasn’t one of them.
“They’re all throwing up and quitting, but he just wouldn’t stop,” Cherpak said. “Believe me, I tried to break him, but I couldn’t. One of the things I love about Zane is as it gets harder he loves it more. A lot of kids don’t understand that but the great ones do.”
Willing his exhausted legs to carry him up that hill as his lungs felt like they were going to burst out of his chest, Zandier admitted he came as close as he ever has to quitting. But he never did.
“He loves to be that guy who will push the limits on anything,” Cherpak said. “He’s just as mentally tough as he is physically, and that’s the biggest thing he possesses, that attitude that you can’t beat me. No matter what, I’m going to keep going.”
Zandier’s high school experience quickly paid off when he arrived at Virginia. Temperatures on the turf practice field next to the McCue Center reached triple digits during an afternoon conditioning session in the first few months he was on Grounds.
Players dropped like flies around him, and many deposited their lunch in one of the industrial size trash cans strategically placed around the field, but he felt right at home.
“It was really, really hard but in the back of my mind I knew I was ready because I had been through it,” Zandier said.
It’s that never-say-die attitude that makes Zandier the emotional catalyst in the Cavaliers’ front seven, especially when it comes to defending the run.
“He is a personality that brings presence to our defense, meaning there’s an edge, and physicality and violence that comes with an inside linebacker with Zane’s temperament,” Mendenhall said.
Zandier started eight games last season, and it didn’t take long for his penchant for violent collisions to surface. His father, Rick, helped teach him proper tackling technique but said no one had to teach his son how to hit. It came naturally.
“Back in youth ball, he played defensive end and loved nothing more than coming off edge and lighting up a quarterback,” Rick Zandier said. “I guess it’s that Pittsburgh, blue collar, steel town attitude that comes out in people.”
Old man football
Rick Zandier was a safety at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. He rarely missed an opportunity to mentor his eldest son about being coachable and teach him many of the same lessons he learned as a young football player.
“Facemask on the ball and drive through the man, all the things that old man football used to be,” Rick Zandier said. “At nine and 10 years old, those were the things that were instilled in him.”
Those lessons paid dividends for Zandier at Thomas Jefferson, where by his senior year he started at safety and wide receiver and returned kicks and punts. As a senior, he was named all-state as a receiver but his physical nature always seemed to lend itself more to the defensive side of the ball.
“At 6-3, 205, people thought we were nuts for putting him [at safety], but he covered so much of the field and had such good ball skills and he would come up and kill somebody,” Cherpak said. “He loved to hit.”
While Zandier mastered the physical side of the game in high school and since arriving at UVa, he has put on about 30 pounds. Heading into his second year as a starter, he’s tackling the mental side of the game.
“He has probably watched more film the last three years than his first 10 years of football,” Rick Zandier said. “It’s more of a chess match these days. There’s so much strategy that goes into it. Playing middle linebacker, he’s got to be the chess player against the quarterback.”
Film study helps, but Zandier said playing linebacker is still more about mentality.
“Being a linebacker is all about being durable and being a leader on defense,” Zandier said. “Throughout games, you get banged up and injured but you just have to be able to push and persevere.”
Zandier is the prototypical Pittsburgh tough guy, which plays well in his current role as a run-stuffing inside linebacker in Virginia’s 3-4 scheme, but his mentality was honed on that hill under the watchful eye of Coach Cherpak.
“He takes the mentality of a college coach and pushes the kids to the extent where you can’t push them anymore,” Rick Zandier said. “You’ve got to take them to their breaking point so you know how far you can take them.”
Luckily for Zandier, he’s so stubborn he has yet to reach that point.
‘I got this’
Zandier’s mother, Ria, said he was always a very determined child. So much so that his younger sister, Remy, kept a post-it note on her bedroom wall reminding her to say “No, Zane, no and walk away” when he would try to talk her into something.
In grade school, Ria had to pry him out of the car for the first day of football practice.
“Our theory was you have to try something and you have to finish it,” Ria Zandier said. “If you finish it and you don’t like football, you don’t have to do it again.”
It wasn’t long, though, before that same stubbornness made it all his parents could do to get him off the field.
“By the end of that season, he came to me and said ‘I love football. Thank you for making me get out of the car,’” Ria Zandier said.
Living less than 20 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, the Zandiers were, of course, a Pittsburgh Steelers family. In between chauffeuring four kids to various athletic events, they caught as many games in Heinz Field as possible.
During one particularly rainy game against the Detroit Lions, it became clear that at least some of Zandier’s stubbornness came from his mom’s side of the family.
“I looked at him and he looked at me and I said ‘I know we’re diehards. We’re not leaving,’” Ria Zandier said.
In high school, Zandier played in two league championship games at Heinz Field. When Virginia takes the field there for Saturday’s season opener against Pittsburgh, he’ll have plenty of family in the stands once again. Ria has eight siblings, most of whom also have children, and Rick has three. Zandier has a fan club that rarely misses a game, and Ria said they’ll all be there in the stands in their No. 33 jerseys.
“We’re his biggest fans,” said Ria, adding that she and Rick missed just one UVa home game last season.
College programs began taking notice of Zandier during his junior year of high school. That was also the year he first got to play in Heinz Field, and his coaches made sure he was aware of the stakes.
“His coaches told him if you’re ever going to shine, it’s got to be now. This is where they’re going to see you,” Ria said.
The stakes will be high again on Saturday. Virginia has never won on the road against Pittsburgh, and the Cavaliers are counting on a solid performance to set the tone for the rest of the year. Zandier’s response is likely to be the same as it was before his first performance in the 68,000-seat stadium.
“I got this.”