Mt. Hebron senior Zach Nicholas is what you might expect in a Division I football prospect: fast, strong, dynamic, hard-hitting. But once Nicholas steps off of the field, any preconceptions of an obsessed athlete are removed.
"I like nature a lot, so a lot of times I'll just go in the woods and walk around, go to the river near my house. I'll just walk there. I'm also kind of a nerdy guy, I like to play games like 'Skyrim' and 'Legend of Zelda.' A lot of people wouldn't expect that from a football player," said Nicholas, the Howard County Times football Defensive Player of the Year. "I think a lot of people are expecting the stereotype, the football player who only thinks about football with no other interests, and I'm not really that type of person. I do a whole bunch of different things."
Two days before Christmas, Nicholas planned to spend the evening taking part in a Gingerbread House competition with friends, but anyone who thinks those types of activities can't be enjoyed by a Division I prospect would be mistaken.
"Zach's an explosive guy," said coach Phil Zacharias, who was the defensive coordinator when Nicholas came to Mt. Hebron as a freshman. "As a football player his actions speak much louder than his words."
Those actions included making 61 tackles this season (34 solo), with 1.5 sacks, five pass break-ups, two forced fumbles, four recoveries (three returned for touchdowns) and two interceptions.
On offense, Nicholas rushed for 952 yards (6.2 per carry) and 12 touchdowns, and caught 20 passes for 240 more yards. He never left the field, also serving as a kick and punt returner.
"His football speed is what always impressed me," Zacharias said. "There might be players faster than him, but no one could catch him."
The son of a college football player — Bruce Nicholas played free safety for University of Maryland Eastern Shore — Zach Nicholas was initially a basketball player.
"I actually didn't want to play football but my dad said I should try it and it would be really fun," said Nicholas, who also runs track for the Vikings. "I started with flag in second grade and went to tackle in third."
By the time Nicholas got to high school, he was a varsity-ready player, although he didn't outwardly show it.
"I came in wide-eyed and the workouts were really fun in the summer. Seeing all of those seniors, they used to look so big and intimidating, so I was just hoping that I would make an impact when I got here," he said.
It didn't take long for Nicholas to contribute.
"I remember when he came over to workouts. I was just trying to get to know the kids we had," Zacharias said. "Zach was fairly developed at the time. Based on the way he ran and what we had coming back, he stayed on varsity. He was our best tackler as a freshman."
As a sophomore, Nicholas started to come into his own, making 65 tackles, and gaining more than 300 yards on offense with three TDs.
"He had a good build and just got stronger," Zacharias said.
Last year was a dream season for Nicholas and the Vikings, as he collected a career-high 75 tackles with three sacks, and gained more than 750 yards and 11 touchdowns on offense, leading the Vikings to their first playoff berth in almost a decade. In the offseason, he verbally committed to play football for the University at Buffalo.
"It was a great experience because we did something that the school hasn't done in about 10 years," he said. "With all of the great players who have come through here like Aaron Maybin and Chris Eccleston, they didn't make it to the playoffs, but our team did and we can feel really special about that team and how we performed."
The Vikings couldn't recapture the magic this season, starting the season 0-5 and finishing 4-6, but Nicholas' resolve never wavered.
"You would never see the frustration. He just kept coming to work," Zacharias said. "He'll be successful whatever he does because he's able to do everything you ask him."
At Buffalo, Nicholas projects as a safety and kick returner on special teams. Academically, he plans to major in biology.