Maybe it shouldn’t come as a surprise given that he’s the son of a football coach at a Florida prep powerhouse, but when it comes to football Zack Darlington is pretty much up for anything.
When Nebraska had three returning quarterbacks plus early enrollee Patrick O’Brien on the roster in the spring — not to mention Tulane transfer Tanner Lee on the way — the Husker staff asked Darlington if he would consider moving to wide receiver.
“If it helps the team win and it helps us get a W on Saturdays, then I’ll do it,” Darlington said. Just like that the state-champion, top-15 dual-threat quarterback in high school became a receiver at the start of his sophomore season.
Maybe it shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that when Nebraska had another hole to fill following the tragic loss of Sam Foltz — not the punting gig, but the often overlooked holding job — it turned again to Darlington.
“When they came to me and asked me about being a holder it was the same thing,” Darlington said. “I just wanted to do anything to help.”
That move was actually a throwback to Darlington’s prep days as he was the holder for Apopka (Fla.) High School, coached by his father, Rick. Back then, Darlington said, holding was pretty simple — don’t drop the snap, place the ball straight up and down.
At the college level, however, things are a little more scientific. Long snapper Jordan Ober was given a scholarship solely to snap on special teams. It’s his craft and it shows. According to Darlington, the ball gets to him on place kicks much more quickly than it did in high school, but it also often comes in with just the right technique.
“Ober has it down to where he knows how many rotations the ball will be spinning so that when I catch it the laces will be out and I won’t even have to spin the ball,” Darlington said.
Then there’s Drew Brown, perhaps one the best kickers in the country entering the 2016 season. He has his preferences, too, and Darlington got to work perfecting them the day he got the call from Nebraska’s coaches asking him if he’d give holding a try.
“Drew likes it tilted towards me and a little forward,” Darlington said, “open up the sweet spot.”
The holder is the variable in the place-kicking equation nobody hopes to notice, but Darlington looks at it as more than that.
“It’s a chance to have a little spot on the team of my own,” he said. “Not many people think much of a holder, but for me it was just a chance to do something. It was a chance to do something to help the team.”
There’s also a remote chance — one the Huskers are hoping won’t come to pass — that Darlington will have to call on his quarterback skills as well. If Ober should flub a snap or Darlington should drop one, the ex-quarterback will be more than happy to be suddenly looking for an open receiver, the first-down marker or the goal line. Darlington has already joked with Ober that he’s going to lead the country in two-point conversions.
He might also be a short-term option for Nebraska at quarterback given a recent departure from the Huskers’ roster.
When AJ Bush opted to transfer last week, O’Brien got bumped up to No. 3 on the depth chart. Nebraska always travels with three quarterbacks, but the Husker coaches are still hoping to redshirt the true freshman. It creates a scenario where the Huskers’ top two quarterbacks could be out at the same time and Nebraska’s staff would have to either burn O’Brien’s redshirt or put a non-quarterback at quarterback for a few plays.
Or maybe an ex-quarterback. It’s an unlikely scenario, but one Nebraska needed to plan for anyway.
“We have to have another guy prepared and we’ve got that kind of built into this team. We’ll have that ready, too,” Coach Mike Riley said last week.
Maybe it shouldn’t come as a surprise, again, that Darlington is the Huskers’ emergency quarterback option in that situation, both based on experience and his willingness to do anything he is asked to do for Nebraska.
Well, almost anything.
“I was joking with [offensive coordinator Danny] Langsdorf that if I have to get in and he gives me a run play, no chance. I’m checking it. We’re going down the field,” Darlington said.
He was joking again, but good humor seems to be a key part of Darlington’s do-everything mentality.
“I guess on the depth chart it will say wide receiver, holder and E-QB,” Darlington said. “Coach Riley called me a Swiss Army knife the other day and I kind of like that.”
Brandon is the Managing Editor for Hail Varsity and has covered Nebraska athletics for the magazine and web since 2012, Hail Varsity’s first season on the scene. His sports writing has also been featured by Fox Sports, The Guardian and CBS Sports.