Zacch Pickens lights up when you ask him about his favorite play from last season.
He remembers it vividly. It was the Nov. 16 game at Texas A&M and quarterback Kellen Mond threw a short pass to tight end Jalen Wydermyer. As Wydermyer (5 catches for 79 yards) cut up field, Pickens, a 300-pound defensive tackle, ran him down and made the tackle.
“I was all the way down there and I hawked the tight end down,” Pickens said, grinning. “It was actually pretty far, I was kinda tired after that. … It was a run now. Yeah, it was a run … The next play, coach me got out of there.”
It was one of the few highlights for Pickens, who had just 16 tackles in an eye-opening freshman season. But it showed the potential and impressive athleticism of Will Muschamp’s first five-star recruit and why his coaches and teammates believe Pickens will emerge as South Carolina’s next big impact player on defense.
“My freshman season, I think I could have done a little better,” Pickens said. “But it’s a work in progress.”
Muschamp landed Pickens out of T.L. Hanna High School, where he was rated the No. 1 defensive end in the country. As a high school senior, he had 87 tackles, including 15 tackles for loss. He also rushed for 889 yards as a fullback in earning South Carolina’s “Mr. Football.”
He arrived at South Carolina with huge expectations, but faced a major challenge when Muschamp decided to move him from defensive end to defensive tackle, a position he had never played before and is still learning. Though he was rated the best defensive end in the country, Muschamp believed he had the size and strength to play in the middle and Pickens was agreeable to the change.
“It was a conversation, but I was really just mainly here to help the team,” the humble Pickens said. “Wherever they wanted me, that’s where they put me. We were loading down on D-Tackle, so I was like, ‘Coach, I’ll play D-Tackle.’”
Though Pickens played in every game, he played only about 15 snaps a game backing up seniors Javon Kinlaw and Kobe Smith. It was a learning experience for a player who was dominant as an edge rusher. He struggled with his footwork, the speed of the game, double teams and being so close to the ball and point of attack.
“D-End, it’s like you have all this space, where D-Tackle, you are right there,” he said.
“Zacch, athletically, from a girth standpoint, from an intelligence standpoint, from a work ethic standpoint, has a lot of ability,” Muschamp said. “[But] I always say, the closer your position moves to the ball, the harder it is to play as a young player, because the game is much faster, it's much bigger, it's much more complex than what you've ever been used to playing in high school. That's just part of it. Javon was nowhere near the player his first year as he was his last year, I mean, not even comparable.”
Pickens was most surprised by the speed of offensive players in the SEC, including mammoth offensive linemen.
“Those guys are really fast,” he said. “But now it’s time for me to get faster just like them. I’ve had enough time to practice hard and I have enough time to prepare myself better this season.”
With the loss of Smith and Kinlaw, who is expected to be a first-round pick in next month’s NFL Draft, South Carolina is counting on Pickens to move into a starting role this season with returning seniors Keir Thomas and Jabari Ellis and junior Rick Sandidge.
“We need him to play inside. We need him to be really good inside,” defensive coordinator Travaris Robinson said. “He’ll play three-technique, he’ll play some shade, he’ll play some different things on the front. He’s able to do that because he’s a very physical and athletic guy. He’s got to continue to learn the scheme and continue to learn how we want to play.”
Pickens is working with new defensive line coach Tracy Rocker, a former NFL player and All-American at Auburn. He says Rocker is pushing to “get the dog out of me.”
“He knows it’s in me, but it’s a work in progress too. But he’s going to get it out of me,” he said.
His teammates see a different player than the freshman who struggled last season.
“He’s very strong, very powerful,” offensive lineman Sadarius Hutcherson says.
“Physically, he looks different. He looks a lot bigger,” said linebacker Ernest Jones, the team’s defensive captain. “Zacch is taking the initiative to come out every day and work. Last year he would have spurts, but this year he is coming in and is constantly doing his thing and doing his job. I’m excited to see his ceiling and see where he can go.”
Thomas believes he will go far, paying him the highest compliment.
“Zacch has the chance to be the best player in the league,” he said.
The comparisons to Kinlaw have already begun. Kinlaw arrived at South Carolina as an overweight, out-of-shape defensive tackle still learning how to play football. Two years later, he dominated the SEC, earning All-American honors and wowing NFL scouts.
Pickens watched and learned, following Kinlaw’s example and gleaning everything he could from a player with similar size and stature.
“He taught me how to fight, how to keep coming,” Pickens said. “He said the same thing that Coach Rocker said, there is something in me, there’s just missing pieces. He said it took him three years, it’s going to take you three years or more. But I took that and I’m trying to do better.
“I really look up to Kinlaw. He’s kinda like an older brother and I try to emulate him. But I have to be better in my own way.”
Robinson hopes Pickens and all of his defensive linemen follow the example of Kinlaw, who helped turn the defensive line into a team strength last year.
“As a defense, we’ve been showing a lot of clips of Javon playing,” he said. “The good thing is, when you come in and you’ve got good players in front of you, you know what it’s supposed to look like. A lot of times when you’re a young player, you don’t know what it looks like. You don’t know what good is.
“[Zacch] was able to see good first-hand and see how [Javon] practiced, how he worked, how he carried himself inside and outside the building. [Javon] set a positive example for him and we’re excited about it and I believe Zacch has seen the way. Now it’s up to him to do it.”
Muschamp believes he will, just like Kinlaw.
“The great thing about Zacch is, he is a great learner, a great worker, a unbelievable young man that wants [it],” he said. “He's a pleaser, and he wants to do everything the right way. And when you have that kind of attitude everyday and that kind of work ethic every single day, then that's going to translate to good things when you have the athletic ability that he has.”
Pickens is doing everything he can to get there.
“It’s a work in progress, but I’m slowly starting to get myself prepared,” he said.