LINCOLN, NEB. — He remembers Urban Meyer comparing him to Tim Tebow. Which, when you’re an athletic teen quarterback busting tail in Florida, is akin to a pianist being compared to Brubeck, a dancer to Astaire, a composer to McCartney, shotgun with the gold standard.
It’s the kicker. The line that hooks you.
The line that wins. Every time.
“He might’ve said it to everyone he talks to,” Nebraska receiver/holder Zack Darlington told Land of 10. “He just said that I played with a lot of enthusiasm, and that was the kind of thing he liked. And just thought that my talent level and my skill level that I brought to the table would really help his team. He was sort of getting me all hyped up. He saw a resemblance in Tebow. He wanted me to come to Ohio State so I could be his next Heisman Trophy winner.
“So you tell any high school kid that, they’re going to absolutely lose their minds.”
Darlington nearly flipped his lid, too, right then and there. This was the spring of 2013, when young Zack was the do-everything junior quarterback at Apopka (Fla.) High School, a state champion and one of the premium talents in talent-rich central Florida. His neighbors were massive Gators fans. The sophomore was raised just 110 miles south of Gainesville, where Meyer, the new coach at Ohio State, had been the SEC’s alpha dog, winning national titles in 2006 and 2008.
The alpha dog offered.
The alpha dog pleaded.
Zack Darlington said no.
“It was just one of those things where, when I came here, it just felt right,” Darlington said of Lincoln. “And I think, just the way my story has played out, has kind of showed you it was the right choice, just because of everything that’s happened in my career. The chances that I’ve had to leave. So, I mean, this has definitely played out the right way for me.”
Meyer’s sixth-ranked Buckeyes (7-1, 4-1) host Darlington’s No. 9 Huskers (7-1, 4-1) this weekend in Columbus, the Big Red’s second continent-tilting test in the span of two weeks. The last time Nebraska visited Ohio Stadium, the fall of 2012, Darlington was a hotshot prep quarterback, ranked as one of the top 15 dual-threat signal-callers in the country by 247Sports.com, a high-motor stud who grew up in the shadow of some of Meyer’s best work.
Of course, he also grew up the son of a former pom squad member at Oklahoma, where his older brother Ty would become a standout center and two-time academic All-American. Nor did he necessarily bleed UF orange, even as he was surrounded by dozens of pals who did.
“I was that kid that would root against whoever everyone liked,” Zack offered with a puckish grin, “just because I wanted to get under their skin.”
There was one team he adopted without ulterior motives: Auburn, back before the fall of 2010. As it happened, the Tigers were recruiting his older brother, and as a freshman in high school, Zack accompanied the latter on a recruiting visit to the Plains.
“I remember I went there and I fell in love with the facilities,” Darlington said. “And I was like, ‘Holy cow, this is amazing.’ I was like, ‘Wow, I just love Auburn.’”
At one point during said lovefest, the younger Darlington recalled seeing a big guy, 6-foot-6 with these massive shoulders, out on a practice field, slinging a football around and getting loose.
“Ty, look at this tight end, he’s huge,” Zack says.
“No, man, that’s the new junior college quarterback,” Ty replies.
Cam Newton. A young Cam.
“And he hadn’t played yet,” Zack recalled. “He had just gotten there.
“Going into that season, I had decided, ‘Well, I’m going to be an Auburn fan this year.’ And that’s the season they ended up killing it. That was probably the one time where I picked a team before they started doing well. I guess, in a way, I was a bandwagon (guy) at certain times.”
Other times, Zack was happier forging his own path. Ironically, the man who really sealed the deal on getting Darlington to Lincoln now works on Meyer’s staff in Columbus: current Buckeyes co-offensive coordinator Tim Beck, who’d had the same role under Bo Pelini with the Huskers.
“Watching the year (Ohio State) won the national championship … I was kind of like, ‘All right, did I do the right thing?’” Darlington said when asked about the fall of 2014. “Because I watched them win a national championship while (Pelini) had just been fired. So you kind of sit there, wondering.
“The best advice I ever got through the recruiting process was to pick somewhere that, even if the coach leaves, you’d still want to be there. And I think that’s the hard part for a lot of kids to wrap their minds around, because a lot of times when you see a coach or coaches leave a certain school, you see a lot of kids leave. I mean, it’s just one of those things where, of course, you’re going to remember when the one other place that you considered had the success that they did.
“It popped out at me a couple times. I just think it’s one of those things where you just kind of have to sit back and laugh about it, you know? Because you don’t have any way of knowing what’s going to happen in the future. And you just have to trust it and just go with your gut instinct.”
Zack’s guts told him to roll with T Street. As a kid, the Big Red were always popping up in his world, as if by kismet. When Apopka won the state championship in 2001, next to a picture in a local paper of the Blue Darts lifting the trophy was a shot of then-Nebraska quarterback Eric Crouch, Heisman in hand.
“So there’s always been this thing,” Darlington said, “where Nebraska kind of always hung around.”
When Zack went to play for father Jeff at Apopka, the son was a key cog in a system similar to the one inside the Big Red playbook. Beck seized upon this, and during the recruiting process, the Floridian would be shown clips of the Huskers running a play, followed immediately by a quick cut to Darlington under center with his high school, executing the same set.
“So it was kind of neat as to how they were able to make the connections of where I would fit,” the Huskers receiver recalled, “and how I would eventually go into that offense and what-not.”
“I didn’t want them to find out on the ticker or (via a) text from someone else. I wanted to personally let them know that I was thankful for the chance that they had given me, but I was going to go to Nebraska.”
— Zack Darlington, on being recruited by Ohio State
When he took an unofficial visit to Lincoln, it was for giggles as much as anything.
“I was scheduled to go to Ohio State the very next weekend,” Darlington said. “And actually, (while) getting on the plane to come here, I told my parents that I was wasting my time because I was going to Ohio State.”
Once he’d landed in the 402 …
“Just a total change of heart,” Darlington said. “Being around everything, it felt right. I have no idea what exactly it was, but it was just something about Nebraska that was not like anywhere else I’ve been.”
That bond deepened in the fall of 2013, after a helmet-to-helmet hit during the season opener of his senior campaign sent Darlington to the hospital with a concussion. It was his second concussion in two months, an injury that left his football future in doubt. Pelini affirmed to the family that the Huskers would honor the scholarship, even if the young quarterback never played a down.
“I have the utmost respect for that man, and everything he did for me and my family,” Darlington said. “And that he was able to provide me and the invitation that he extended to me is something that I’ll never be able to thank him enough for.”
If he didn’t play for Pelini and Beck, Darlington had hoped to partner with Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman, one of the best folks he’d met on the recruiting merry-go-round. Of course, in December 2014, the University of Houston hired Herman off Meyer’s staff to run its football program, sending the carousel spinning again.
“Coach Herman was one of the reasons I wanted to go to Ohio State,” Darlington said. “And in a way, if you look at it, I would’ve gone there and Herman would’ve left anyway. Just about anywhere I would have gone, the coaches would have been going. But that’s just how college football is in general. Guys are always bouncing around, looking for a new spot.”
From Pelini to Mike Riley, quarterback to receiver, Darlington stuck around. Realizing the Florida native wasn’t likely to see the field as an option quarterback in a pro-style system, the coaches nevertheless wanted to try to get him on the field somewhere, and suggested a move this past spring to slot receiver.
“Zack and I have been talking for a while about something like this,” Riley told The Daily Nebraskan at the conclusion of the first spring practice. “What he’s looking for is opportunity, and what we’re looking for is the placement of a guy who is really a good athlete.”
The other new wrinkle on Darlington’s plate was born of tragic circumstances — the Huskers opened preseason camp without a holder for kicker Drew Brown following the crash that killed Sam Foltz. In the fourth quarter of a season-opening 43-10 rout of Fresno State, Darlington wasted no time making an impression:
See? Say what you will about Urban Meyer, but the man can peg a good set of wheels. And hands.
— Zeus (@DarlingtonZack) October 4, 2016
“For coach Meyer to call,” Darlington said, “just the things that he said, just the comments he gave me, were the things that would light up any kid’s imagination.”
And just imagine how hard it must’ve been to walk away from all that. To make that phone call.
Um, coach, about that offer …
“He’s a competitive guy,” Darlington said, eyes darting quickly, almost guiltily. “I think the biggest thing for them was that they hadn’t offered anyone else.
“And when Deshaun (Watson) had been going to Clemson and Brandon (Harris) went to LSU and Kyle (Allen) went to A&M, I think they kind of assumed I was dead set on being their guy. And then when I didn’t, they were just worried about what to do next.”
Nor were they terribly … pleased.
“Like I said, he’s a competitive guy,” Darlington continued, laughing. “Nothing against him, but he got a little frustrated. I think it was just the situation they were left in, with not having a quarterback in that class. I think it was more that situation than anything personal. You can’t take it personally. Everyone’s grown (up) here, it’s college football, that’s the way it is.
“My thing (was), out of respect for them, and everything that they’d given me a chance to do, that I wanted to let them know before. I didn’t want them to find out on the ticker or (via a) text from someone else. I wanted to personally let them know that I was thankful for the chance that they had given me, but I was going to go to Nebraska.”
The call took 10 minutes, tops. And let’s be clear: Meyer was civil.
Shocked? Hell, yes.
“I know that, by the end of it, he just wanted me to enjoy everything that I got to do, and that he enjoyed recruiting me and what not,” Darlington said. “It was just one of those things like, in the moment, initially, you’re going to be frustrated, regardless of where you stand. The situation they were left with, I think, probably drove it more than anything.
“Watching them (in 2014), all their guys go down, and my roommates always joke at me, ‘You would’ve been thrown in the mix there. What would you do if you had a national title ring right now?’”
Zack Darlington said no.
And he’s never looked back.
“I don’t know if I can put my finger on what exactly brought me here,” Darlington said, grinning again. “But every time I walk out of that tunnel, it’s that reassurance, knowing that I came to the right place.”