ACC grad Zajac standing tall at St. Ambrose
For Aurora Central Catholic graduate Griffin Zajac, height and weight are just numbers on a piece of paper.
Zajac, a junior defensive back on the Davenport, Iowa-based St. Ambrose University football team, checks in at 5-8 and weighs 165 pounds.
"Physically I probably don't match up well with receivers," he said. "If it's a 6-3 receiver vs. a 5-8 defensive back, teams are going to take that shot. My job is to stay on them, knock that ball down or get the pick."
This season, Zajac has done quite the job in that regard. Through the Fighting Bees' first 7 games, he has four of the team's 11 interceptions and has returned those picks for a total of 103 yards. Zajac also is tops on the team in passes broken up with nine and has 29 total tackles, including 23 solos (a total that ranks fourth on the team).
"It's probably having more experience," he said. "Last year was the first time I had played college football. Now I have some experience. I know what receivers are running. I'm getting more in-depth into scouting reports. It's the mental aspect of the game, and knowing what receivers' strengths are and what their favorite routes are -- those types of concepts. If I know what they are throwing, I'm going to take my shot. The mental game is a big part of my game."
Zajac, a second-team all-conference pick last year and a 2019 College Football America Yearbook NAIA preseason All-American selection, feels his production on the field has resonated with the opposing sideline.
"I think I've done a pretty good job when I'm targeted," he said. "It feels like the targets are less than last year, but because of my height and weight, I'm a target of all teams. Again, it's that mental part where I succeed at the most."
Zajac said interceptions and pass breakups don't happen without additional help.
"I have a job to do and other 10 guys do their job as well," he said. "They are the ones that put pressure on the quarterback so he has no time to make another decision."
Zajac provided a window into his potential last year when he returned an interception a school-record 95 yards for a touchdown against Trinity. He finished last year tied for second in the country in passes defended (interceptions and breakups) per game (2.0) and had 4 interceptions.
"There were two or three minutes left in the half, it was third down and they needed to get to the goal line," he said of the interception. "I jumped an out route and took it from there."
A strategic communications major at the NAIA school, Zajac is appreciative of the opportunity he's receiving both on the field and in the classroom at St. Ambrose.
"I love it here," he said. "I came from ACC, which is small. This is a smaller private school. I didn't want to go to a big college. I think there are 2,700 or 3,000 undergrads here. Class sizes are 20 so the teacher knows your name and they care. Plus, it's two hours away from home. I'm a big family guy, so if I want to go home, it's real close. It's the little things about the school that make me love it here."
Now fully entrenched in a college football career, Zajac said it's fulfilling to be playing the way he is playing.
"I have been overlooked since high school," he said. "During the recruiting process senior year I didn't get a lot of looks because of my height. I know it's a risk and I understand that, but I am a good football player. I'm better than what I look like. I don't ever expect to get awards, and to be honest that came as a surprise. I don't care about awards and stats. I just play football. I play the game I love."
But he also knows there still is room to grow.
"There is a bunch of room for improvement," he said. "I have made mistakes this year and I made some last year. Nobody is ever perfect. I'm pretty positive no defensive back has had a zero-percent completion rate against them. I can get stronger and I can get faster, and still improve myself mentally. I'll never be perfect as a defensive back, but that's another motivation for me. If I want to strive to be the best, I have to prepare to be the best during the season and in the off-season."
Off at College wants your help: Send information and/or statistics on Fox Valley-area athletes playing collegiately to Mike Miazga at firstname.lastname@example.org. Fall sports submissions are encouraged.