Proving them all Wrong
By Parish Howard
When Derek “DJ” Zellner Jr. left JCHS midway through his sophomore season to play football at Curtis Baptist, there were some people who told him he was giving up too much.
The move from a triple A ranked public school to the Augusta-based single A private school, some told him, could cost him attention from college recruiters.
But Zellner took the techniques he had learned in that program and put them together with a personal dedication to prove the naysayers wrong. This week he is moving across the state to join the LaGrange College Panthers football team.
“I was told that because I transferred from a public school to a private school I was not going to play at the next level,” Zellner said. “And I struggled with that. But the people telling me I couldn’t do it, it kind of inspired me. I told myself I had to prove these people wrong.”
He played the first six games of his sophomore year with JCHS before finishing the season with Curtis Baptist, where his mother had connections.
“I always thought I was going to graduate from Jefferson County,” Zellner said. “But, an opportunity came up and they told me I could be a big factor there. I thought then that I wasn’t 100 percent positive I was going to play college football, so why not go to Curtis and play both sides (offense and defense) and as much football as I could possibly play.
“I know that had I stayed I would have had the opportunity to play at the next level. They have a great program. But I’m not sure that I would have had the same state championship experience had I stayed.”
He joined the Crusaders and played center and defensive line.
Zellner’s junior year with Curtis Baptist his team went 6-6 and lost in the first round of the playoffs.
He has always loved O line.
“You’re hitting somebody every play,” he said. “You aren’t just sitting around. I’ve always liked playing line. There’s never a play when you are not physically hitting somebody.”
And after attending several camps on his own his junior year, he told his coach he wanted to focus on offensive line because that’s what he would play in college.
“That summer after my junior year I really devoted myself to working hard, the whole team did,” Zellner said. “Senior year we came out and lost our first game to a team that was nowhere as good as we were. Then we won 10 games straight. We beat the Frederica team that won state by 20 points the first time we played them. Then we played them again in the playoffs and we manhandled them that game as well. We went on to play the same team we lost to in the first round the year before. We wound up losing by 12 points, but it was a great experience.”
Zellner and his team ended the season Region 1-A champions and 1-A state runner ups. The team finished with a record breaking 11-3 games and the most wins ever in a single pre and post season play for the school.
It was during the camps after his junior year and then during the Crusaders’ epic season that he started realizing he had a shot at playing college ball.
“I had been to some big camps with JCHS,” Zellner said. “But my new school was a lot smaller and couldn’t afford them. So during my 11th grade summer I started going to camps on my own, individually.”
He said that he found himself in head to head competition with players both bigger and stronger than he was, but found that with his technique, he beat them. Over and over again, even at the big division one camps, he won the majority of his one-on-ones.
“The bigger schools just told me I was too small,” Zellner said. “I was at Dog Night, which is one of the biggest football camps in the nation. Some of the other guys there were tall and big, but they didn’t really have the skill. The bigger schools will tell you that you can’t teach size. If you’re under six foot two at offensive line, you just really don’t have much of a chance. I’m six foot, 285 pounds. When you’re going against a six-foot-six tackle it doesn’t look that great. I accepted that. But I also realized that while I might not have the size to go Division One, I could still go Division two or three.”
Despite his size, he continued to do well in the competitions. The people who told him he was not big enough or that he would not make it inspired him to work that much harder.
“Prove everybody wrong,” Zellner advises any other player out there who have heard the same things. “That was a big motivation in my mind every day. People told me I couldn’t do it. I accepted I might not be the best offensive lineman in the world, but I was going to work my butt off to be the best I could be.”
And so he focused even more on what he could control.
“The coaches told me I had really good technique,” Zellner said. “That’s what I focused on. Offensive line is all footwork, hands and balance. That’s something I learned at Jefferson County, they preached footwork. Speedladder was a big deal. By the time I went to Curtis I had great footwork. I just kept working on it. You can’t let it go, because it is the number one key of the offensive line.”
His junior year the Crusaders scored most of their touchdowns through the A gaps, which was right behind him, he said.
“It’s one of the greatest feelings to open up a hole and watch your running back run down the field for a 50 yard touchdown,” Zellner said. “We went from a Power I my junior year, to my senior year in the spread where we had the fastest backfield in the state in private school. We could take the outside and the middle. LaGrange runs a spread offense so that was good experience for me. Actually I’m a better pass blocker anyway. That prepared me more for college where I have to get through to the linebackers.”
He had offers and visited several schools, but chose LaGrange after visiting its campus.
“I just loved it,” he said. “It was a bunch of brick buildings with white columns. The people there liked me and the players welcomed me pretty well. That’s one of the main reasons I chose them.”
Zellner said he’s looking forward to playing on Saturdays and expects to play center.
“My future head coach told me that he really needs me to come in and learn more about being center. It’s one of the most important positions on offense,” he said. “When you have a bad snap the whole play is blown. A bad snap can lose you 15 yards and it’s happened to me and it’s one of the worst feelings because it doesn’t matter what anyone says, that was all your fault.”
As much as he loves playing, Zellner said he is really just looking forward to learning more about the game itself, because he hopes to coach one day.
“I spent quite a bit of time with Coach Cliff Richards,” Zellner said. “He was an assistant coach, but has since become head coach this season at Curtis. He was always uplifting and always encouraged me to get better every single day and to never take things for granted.”
It is a lesson that has served him well so far.