Sept. 6, 2017
CHARLOTTESVILLE -- Midway through the first quarter, at the end of a pass play that gained 13 yards, University of Virginia wide receiver Olamide Zaccheaus lost the football Saturday after being tackled by a William & Mary defender.
For an anxious moment, it appeared a lamentable streak would continue for the Cavaliers, who had turned the ball over at least once in each of their previous 42 games. But disaster was averted Saturday at Scott Stadium.
"I've been telling people that it was some kind of divine intervention," Zaccheaus said Monday with a smile.
When the ball was loose, Zaccheaus said, "I kind of kicked it a little bit with my left foot. Then somebody was on top of it, and I somehow got underneath him and I was able to grab it. I recovered it, popped up and told everybody to calm down and keep playing, because we got the ball back."
The drive ended with a 1-yard touchdown run by Jordan Ellis, the first points in what would be a season-opening 28-10 victory for UVA. Zaccheaus, as usual, impressed. The 5-8, 190-pound junior finished with five receptions for 56 yards and one touchdown, a 17-yard strike from quarterback Kurt Benkert in the third quarter.
The end zone is a familiar place for Zaccheaus, who switched jersey numbers this year, from 33 to 4. In 2016, he led the team with seven touchdown catches. No other Cavalier had more than four.
Still, it was a challenging year for Zaccheaus, and not only because the Wahoos finished 2-10 in their first season under head coach Bronco Mendenhall.
Zaccheaus, a graduate of St. Joseph's Prep in Philadelphia, played in all 12 games but was rarely 100 percent.
"Last year I dealt with a lot of soft-tissue injuries," he said. "Pulled my quad against Pitt. Had a hamstring injury basically the whole time.
"You rarely ever see somebody pull their quad. It's something that never happens. There were a lot of little nagging injuries throughout the season. I had to assess what I was doing. What was I doing wrong? I figured out hydration is the most important part."
These days, Zaccheaus carries a plastic jug of water with him everywhere he goes. He also gets massages regularly and spends hours in the cold tub, reviving sore muscles.
"He's really embraced taking care of his body," UVA offensive coordinator Robert Anae said Tuesday. "Taking care of your body means hydrating, that means stretching, that means eating right, that means sleeping right. There's been a huge, noticeable change in his embrace on that end, and it's showed."
Injuries are part of the game, "but the minor-injury stuff, he's been able to avoid," Anae said, "whereas before the soft muscle tissue, the pulls, the strains, those were a common occurrence. So to his credit, in the weight room and in the nutrition area, he's really done a nice job and embraced that part of preparation."
During Mendenhall's 11 seasons as head coach at BYU, Anae had two stints as the offensive coordinator. At UVA, in addition to overseeing the offense, Anae coaches the tight ends (Evan Butts, Richard Burney and Tanner Cowley), and the inside receivers (Zaccheaus, Joe Reed, Hasise Dubois and Chuck Davis).
Did he ever have a player of Zaccheaus' stature and skill set at BYU? Anae shook his head. "He's one of a kind," he said.
Before coming to BYU in 2005, however, Anae spent five seasons as offensive line coach on Mike Leach's staff at Texas Tech. For the first four of those seasons, the Red Raiders' wideouts included an undersized dynamo named Wes Welker, who went on to become an NFL star.
Anae sees some Welker in Zaccheaus.
"Now, I'm not comparing them, but they play the same position, and they're roughly the same build and have a lot of the same skill sets," Anae said. "They're not exactly the same guy, but there are a lot of similarities."
Zaccheaus' parents lived in Nigeria before moving to the United States. His first name, which means "a blessing to come," is pronounced Oh-llama-day and his last Za-key-us.
He came to UVA in 2015 as a tailback, his primary position at St. Joe's Prep. But after a string of injuries left the `Hoos thin at wide receiver, Zaccheaus moved to wideout during training camp that summer, as did his roommate Chris Sharp (who returned to running back this year).
As a true freshman that fall, Zaccheaus established himself as one of the Cavaliers' most explosive players. He caught 21 passes for 216 yards and one touchdown, rushed 33 times for 262 yards and another score, and returned 28 kicks for 541 yards.
He never expected to return to running back. "I kind of figured this is my ending spot," Zaccheaus said. "Even at receiver, you can still do some of the things that running backs do. So I felt that this was a good way of incorporating everything I can do."
At the end of the 2015 season, Mike London stepped down as the Cavaliers' head coach, and Mendenhall took over soon after that. Most of his staff from BYU followed him to Charlottesville, including Anae, whose challenges last year included figuring out how best to deploy Zaccheaus.
"My philosophy is to take a player's strengths and start with his strengths," Anae said. "Olamide's strengths are, he's really good in space, he's sure-handed, he's a trusting guy, and he really cares. So we put him in a lot of different positions.
"It's important to him to be a student of the game. Here's an example: He'll know if we don't have enough guys in the huddle. He'll know if somebody is not [lined up] right based on the play [called] in the huddle. He'll help other guys line up, and then they'll go, `Oh, yeah, that's right, that spot, that play.' "
Mendenhall has seen steady improvement from Zaccheaus.
"And the more workload we give him, the more we find out what he can do and where his current level of ability is," Mendenhall said Monday. "As you saw [against William & Mary], there were some really nice plays he made and some catches with bodies right on him and nice concentration."
From the start, Zaccheaus excelled "when he had some space and [was] good with yards after the catch and getting open," Mendenhall said. "But I think he's becoming better at, or at least has shown through fall camp and in our opener that in traffic or when contested, he's concentrating and making the play at a higher level.
A psychology major, Zaccheaus has an older brother, Ola, who's in graduate school at Clark Atlanta University in Georgia, studying mass media productions.
"He loves music," Zaccheaus said. "He creates his own music. He produces his own music. He's just an entertainer. He's really ambitious about it, and he loves doing it."
As for Zaccheaus' skills in that area, "I love listening to music, but that's about it," he said. "I think I can sing, but people tell me that I can't."
He's been in Charlottesville since the start of the spring semester in January. When he's not studying, he's focused on perfecting his craft as a wideout.
Zaccheaus played there some in high school, "but I was still primarily a running back," he said. "But when I moved to receiver, I just committed myself to strictly that and did more receiver-specific drills throughout the offseason, especially this offseason. I sacrificed a lot of my time, especially not going home. I just committed myself to this process and trying to get better."
In 2016, he caught 51 passes for 584 yards and seven touchdowns. Only running back Taquan Mizzell (52) had more receptions for the 'Hoos last year.
He hasn't gained much weight since enrolling at UVA in 2015, but he's a better athlete now, Zaccheaus said. "I definitely am stronger. Probably a little faster, too."
He's a smarter player, too. After a year in Anae's system, Zaccheaus said, "I understand where I need to be. It's not always about getting to the spot [on the field] the same way every time. It can be about doing things differently and still ending up in the same spot."
The Cavaliers' three-game homestand continues Saturday at Scott Stadium. At 3:30 p.m., Virginia (1-0) hosts Indiana (0-1), which opened last week with a 49-21 loss to No. 2 Ohio State in Bloomington.
The Hoosiers, playing at home, led the Buckeyes 21-20 late in the third quarter.
"The thing that I've been hearing around the locker room is, `Just go 1-0 every week,' " Zaccheaus said. "So that's just what we have to do. Indiana is a really good team. They have a really good defense, and their offense is legit. We've just got to prepare like we've been preparing since spring and just attack this opportunity."
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A 1985 graduate of UVA, White worked at the Richmond Times-Dispatch until July 2009. He was honored six times as the state's Sportswriter of the Year.
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