Late in the summer of 2013, Zach Sieler quietly arrived on Ferris State’s campus for the opening day of football practice a lanky 6-foot-5, 215-pound walk-on.
His best 40-yard dash time was north of 5 seconds.
Three years later, the Pinckney native is a powerful 6-6, 280-pound force boasting a 40 time of 4.72 seconds and is one of the nation’s most feared pass rushers.
Nobody at any level of college football has more sacks this season than Sieler, who has 18 1/2 entering Saturday’s Division II semifinal at defending national champion Northwest Missouri State.
That leaves the redshirt sophomore three sacks away from breaking the DII single-season record of 21 set by Grand Valley State’s Matt Judon a year ago.
At times, Sieler hardly can believe he has gone from trying to find his way onto the field to becoming one of the country’s most decorated defensive linemen and playing a major role in getting Ferris one win from its first national championship game.
“I look at what has happened as such a blessing, and it’s been very rewarding to help the team in the way I have,” Sieler said. “God placed me here, and the coaches welcomed me and gave me the opportunity to play college football. I have just tried to take advantage of that.”
Sieler, nine sacks short of breaking the Bulldogs’ career mark of 33, is second in Division II with 27 1/2 tackles for loss and has 73 total tackles. He has forced four fumbles, recovered two and broken up a pass while leading the GLIAC’s top rushing defense (103.5 yards per game).
“Really, it’s been the guys I play out there with, because we are all capable of getting to the quarterback, stopping the run and playing smart defense that other teams can’t afford to double-team one of us,” Sieler said. “That has opened things up for me, and many times I have just been the one getting there first to get a sack with other guys one-half step behind. Obviously a lot of credit goes to the coaches who have developed me as a player.”
Those coaches are elated that Sieler has proven himself more than a capable replacement for two-time All-America Justin Zimmer after serving as his understudy last season.
“Shadowing another standout defensive lineman in Justin Zimmer the last couple of years, Zach learned all he could, which has helped him become an animal both in the weight room and on the field much like Justin was,” defensive line coach Tesfa Smith said. “Zach has certainly exceeded expectations this season, and I’m thrilled for him because he put in a ton of hard work to get to this point. It’s been great to see the growth he’s made.”
Sieler’s rapid growth has allowed him to match, and in some cases exceed, Zimmer’s accomplishments.
Zimmer was the co-holder of the school’s previous single-season sack record with 13 before Sieler shattered it. As talented as he was, Zimmer never was named GLIAC defensive lineman of the year, but Sieler earned the distinction last month.
He also was named a second-team All-America by the American Football Coaches Association this week and is a candidate for the Cliff Harris National Small College Defensive Player of the Year Award.
Top-ranked Northwest Missouri State (13-0) presents easily the biggest challenge of the season for Sieler and the defensive teammates he loves going into battle with, as the Bulldogs make their first national semifinal appearance since 1995. The Bearcats are averaging 47.5 points and 486 yards a game and have allowed only 11 sacks.
Ferris, ranked 14th, has won eight straight since starting 4-2. That includes avenging a regular-season loss to Grand Valley State and handing the Lakers their only loss of the season, in the conference title game last week. Sieler finished with 3 1/2 sacks and forced a fumble that resulted in a touchdown.
“We are coming into the semifinal with a lot of momentum and have come together in such a big way this year, but of course a big key will be winning the turnover battle,” Sieler said. “Last week, we showed how far we’ve come since Grand Valley gave us our last loss. The playoff run has generated so much excitement and support among students, the faculty, alumni and the local residents.”
Sieler, who earned a combined eight varsity letters in football, wrestling and track at Pinckney, was unsure whether he would play college football until Ferris coach Tony Annese offered him a preferred walk-on spot less than a month before National Signing Day in 2013.
“I had spoken with Western Michigan coaches and some other Division II schools, but really was not sure if anything was going to come of it, and I didn’t totally understand the recruiting process,” Sieler said. “Ferris gave me the best offer, and my teammate (offensive lineman Mike Bloom) had already signed with them.”
Little did Sieler know, however, that he would not play another football game until September 2015.
He was redshirted his first year before suffering a finger injury just before the start of practice for the 2014 season that at first appeared minor, but essentially left Sieler without the use of his left hand. Fortunately, he was granted a medical redshirt and did not lose a year of eligibility.
Sieler’s transformation continued, and he made the most of his playing time when he finally began suiting up for games last season. He finished with 17 tackles, including 7 1/2 for loss and 6 1/2 sacks in 11 games.
Ferris State defensive lineman Zach Sieler
Ferris State defensive lineman Zach Sieler (Photo: Ferris State Athletics)
“When I got here, the coaches said I needed to put on good, solid weight and fast,” Sieler said. “I also starting learning a lot as far as technique, footwork, movement and becoming more than just a charge-down-the-field pass rusher like I was in high school. Then I spent last year learning to play and be most effective with my new body and greater speed.”
In this year’s opening, 41-0 win over Ohio Dominican, Sieler showed how much he has learned, finishing with 10 tackles, including three for loss, and 1 1/2 sacks. He also forced a fumble and earned the first of two GLIAC defensive player of the week awards.
Sieler won another after tallying 11 tackles, including 7 1/2 for loss and four sacks, in a 42-10 blowout of Lake Erie.
Regardless of what happens Saturday, Sieler finds comfort in the fact that the second half of his college career is still ahead.
“I am really excited and thankful to have two more years to help our team do great things,” he said. “I know that with more work on improving my strength, technique and speed, I can be even better.”
That must be a scary thought for opposing quarterbacks and offensive coordinators.
Division II semifinals
Matchup: Ferris State (12-2) at Northwest Missouri State (13-0).
When: 3:30 p.m. Saturday.
Where: Bearcat Stadium, Maryville, Mo.
Championship game: Dec. 17 in Kansas City, Mo. No. 2 seed Shepherd (W.Va.) will host No. 3 seed North Alabama in the other semifinal Saturday.
Notable: Top-ranked Northwest Missouri State owns a 28-game winning streak.