LAFAYETTE — He had spent so much energy getting to this point that he looked like he had no idea how to celebrate when his moment actually arrived.
Lining up just off defensive end Remaine Douglas’ left shoulder in the first quarter against Kentucky, Louisiana-Lafayette senior nickel back Zach DeGrange blitzed off the edge. Physically, the 5-foot-10, 193-pound DeGrange couldn’t match the Wildcats’ mammoth right tackle, but his technique could. He dipped his shoulder to gain leverage, then used his speed to get by him, giving him a clear shot at quarterback Patrick Towles.
Towles saw DeGrange beat the block and tried to move up in the pocket, but DeGrange latched on and whipped his body to drag Towles down to the ground for the Cajuns’ first sack of the year.
DeGrange sprung himself up off Towles, stepped over him … and just kind of stood there.
There was no pre-planned celebratory sack dance, no chest-thumping. He simply stood his ground for a moment, then buckled his chin strap as he made his way back to the defensive huddle.
There was more work to do. There’s always more work to do.
“Everything is through hard work,” DeGrange said. “If you keep working hard, one day that hard work will pay off.”
Those two words — hard work — are about as ubiquitous as they get in the language athletes speak. “Hard work” is a go-to phrase for athletes, mainly because doing what they do requires an extraordinary amount of effort. But those words take on a more tangible meaning when considering the route DeGrange took to his current starting role on the Louisiana-Lafayette defense.
“I had no Division I (scholarship) offers,” DeGrange said.
DeGrange is not a scholarship football player. He came to the Cajuns as a preferred walk-on out of St. Augustine in New Orleans during coach Mark Hudspeth’s first season with the Cajuns.
The life of a walk-on is not a glorious one. They litter scout teams as live tackling dummies and fight for scraps of playing time on special teams. Even a standout play in practice comes with the inevitable tag “by a walk-on.”
“As a walk-on, you don’t have as many opportunities as a scholarship player to showcase your talent, so when you get those opportunities, you have to make the most of those,” DeGrange said.
So DeGrange worked for his opportunity. Then he’d get in his coaches’ ears and work them for a shot on special teams.
Eventually, they’d relent. A window would open. DeGrange would get through it and keep working until a bigger window opened.
“He’s one of those guys … that has bugged me to death,” Hudspeth said. “ ‘Coach, I want to do something on special teams. Coach, I want to do this.’ Every time that I’ve given in, he would make plays, (and) then we’d play him a little bit more.”
But that progression might not have resulted in DeGrange working his way into the starting lineup if this last offseason unfolded differently.
The Cajuns cleaned house on their defensive coaching staff — some by way of sitting coaches finding other opportunities, some by way of not renewing contracts — which gave DeGrange a clean slate with a new staff that had no prior notion of his ability.
For perhaps the first time in his career, DeGrange was on a level playing field with his peers, not fighting both the opponent and the walk-on label.
“It’s one thing that you get someone telling you about this guy, or try to tell you to choose this guy,” co-defensive coordinator Charlie Harbison said. “I’m like this: I let my eyes see. And if I’m wrong I’m wrong, I make an adjustment. But with Zach, and with other guys, they work, and I’m thankful that they give me effort and they care about playing, they care about winning, they care about the goals that (Hudspeth) has in place.”
DeGrange first had to show the coaches he was serious off the field. He injured his knee in last year’s regular-season finale against Troy and was unable to participate in spring practice.
Rather than accepting the status quo as a walk-on backup, he dived fully into his rehab and understanding the new defensive scheme brought by Harbison and Melvin Smith.
“You can’t physically be out there on the field, but you can really be out there in the meetings,” DeGrange said. “You have to really zone in and focus in on that, because when you’re healthy, you have to show what you can do. You have to know what you’re doing on the board before you can show what you can do on the field.”
That made an impression on Harbison and Smith, but they still didn’t know what DeGrange could offer on the field until this summer. DeGrange summoned his old skill and asked a coach for a chance to show what he could do in the new coaches’ nickel position.
It’s called a nickel, but it’s not a standard nickel position where the Cajuns plug in their third cornerback on the depth chart. This position requires someone tough who is capable in both coverage and in rushing the passer. It’s sort of a hybrid between a linebacker and a defensive back.
DeGrange fit the bill. Coaches, to a man, use the word “tough” to describe him. Like he did with Towles in the opener, DeGrange latched on and didn’t let go.
Through two games, he’s tied for the team lead in sacks (two) and ranks fourth in the Sun Belt in tackles for loss (three). Not bad for a walk-on.
Hudspeth arrived on campus the same year as DeGrange and is thrilled to see a guy like him maximizing his potential. It reminds him of another walk-on some 25 years ago.
“I’m really proud of him because I was a walk-on when I went to college,” Hudspeth said. “I’ve had to earn everything I’ve gotten, so I have a lot of respect for those guys.”
It’s rarely been easy for DeGrange, who like most walk-ons sometimes questioned whether all the hard work was worth it. Of course, now those questions aren’t being asked.
“It’s very worth it,” DeGrange said. “Dreams come true. Dreams come true. I’m blessed to be in this opportunity that I’m in, and I’m going to keep working hard.”
There’s always more work to do.
“That’s a good story,” Harbison said. “If you put work into something, you’ll get a good harvest.”