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.
"I like the sciences, the natural sciences, biomedical science and things like anthropology," he said. "I know with my job I want to travel, do things with wild life probably and just get around the world."
Also named to the first team defense:
Ron'Dell Carter, Long Reach junior. At an athletic 6-2 and 245 pounds, Carter has the kind of frame and skill set that has him on the Division I radar. This year he made seven sacks for 42 lost yards and five of his 42 tackles were for loss. As a pass-catching tight end, he made 11 receptions for 174 yards and two touchdowns.
Jack Dudzinski, Reservoir senior. The son of University of Maryland linebackers coach Keith Dudzinski, the 6-foot-4, 225-pound defensive end used his high football IQ to make 66 tackles (48 solo) with four sacks and a forced fumble.
Logan Kirby, River Hill senior. Though hampered by injuries for parts of the season, the 6-foot, 225-pound Kirby was still one of the most disruptive forces in the league. The state-finalist wrestler forced two fumbles, recovered one for a touchdown, and made 84 tackles, 20 of them behind the line of scrimmage with 6.5 sacks. In three seasons, he tallied 245 tackles and 15 sacks. He will wrestle for Harvard next year.
Earl Mackel, Wilde Lake senior. Mackel erupted this year, with 43 of his 76 tackles (50 solo) coming in the opposing backfield for lost yardage, including a safety. The 6-foot, 190-pound tackle recorded a league-best 11 sacks for 88 lost yards, intercepted a pass, forced five fumbles, and recovered one.
Jordan Alexander, Glenelg senior. The 6-foot-1, 225-pound Alexander was a scary sight for opposing offensive linemen. He finished this year with 57 tackles, four for loss and seven sacks, forced a fumble and recovered two loose balls. Over the past two seasons, Alexander racked up 120 tackles and 15 sacks.
Sean Davis, Reservoir senior. A tackling machine, Davis was all over the field chasing the ball, finishing with a league-best 123 stops (82 solo). The 6-foot-1, 195-pounder also broke into the backfield for five sacks and averaged more than 11 tackles per game.
Mac Lee, Howard senior. Starting his career as an overweight, undersized lineman, Lee dedicated himself to football, and developed into one of the league's most effective middle linebackers. A lean, 5-foot-9, 180-pounds, Lee made 63 tackles, six for loss with two sacks, and dropped back into coverage to break up three passes and make an interception, which he returned for a touchdown.
Marty Stevenson, Mt. Hebron senior. After leading the league with 131 tackles last year, Stevenson added 103 more this year, with three sacks, three fumble recoveries, two forced fumbles and an interception. The relentless 5-foot-9, 205-pounder also rushed for 350 yards on offense and caught four passes. He was a three-year starter for the Vikings.
Robert Carter, Long Reach senior. The Fan's Choice Defensive Player of the Year, Carter made 29 tackles, intercepted three passes, forced three fumbles and recovered one. A threat on offense and special teams as well, he rushed for 223 yards and six touchdowns and caught 15 passes for 199 yards, including an 80-yard touchdown. A two-time first team selection, Carter also had 395 combined kick and punt return yards this season.
Luke Cheswick, Glenelg senior. The Gladiators' unsung hero, Cheswick contributed in all phases of the game. He broke up 16 passes from his cornerback position, made 26 stops in the secondary, intercepted three passes, forced two fumbles and recovered two. On offense, he was Glenelg's best deep threat, hauling in six passes for 144 yards (24 per catch) and two touchdowns.
Craig Jones, Reservoir junior. One of the league's most promising newcomers, Jones was dangerous anytime he got near the ball. As a cornerback, he made 39 tackles, broke up seven passes, and intercepted two, returning one for a touchdown. As a complement to White in the run game, he amassed 550 yards (6.7 per carry) with six touchdowns. As a receiver he caught 13 passes for 210 yards and two scores. In all, he scored seven times on plays of 50 or more yards.
Malik Jackson, Wilde Lake senior. A three-year starter, Jackson had a break out season. He was all over the field on defense, making 77 tackles, nine for loss with two sacks, forcing a fumble, breaking up seven passes and intercepting two. As the Wildecats' top receiver, he caught 38 passes for 454 yards, three touchdowns and a two-point conversion. He was also Wilde Lake's top punt returner.
Damon Reaves, Centennial senior. A candidate for defensive Player of the Year, Reaves made 88 tackles (55 solo) from his free safety position, deflected seven passes and collected a league-best six interceptions. He also caught 16 passes for 219 yards and two scores, and returned a punt 45 yards for a touchdown.
Neil Caruso, Howard senior. A do-it-all player, the 6-foot-1, 230-pound Caruso was able to help his team any way they needed him. He caught 16 passes for 234 yards and four touchdowns, was a solid run-blocker, and served as the team's punter – averaging more than 35 yards per punt.