Most recruits would probably love touring an NFL stadium on their college visit. The thought of playing and practicing so close to NFL players would seem tantalizing to normal folks.
But for Zion DeBose, that wasn’t the case. Before deciding on Virginia Tech, Pittsburgh was one of his top choices.
“When you think of Pitt, you think of the Steelers,” DeBose said. “When you go see the facility, you’re going to pay more attention to the Steelers than you actually do the college. But [Virginia Tech], I felt like this was actually a pretty good place to be.”
In that case, Pittsburgh and Virginia Tech couldn’t be any different. The Panthers play in a metropolitan area, where the college football team is easily the fourth-most attractive sports option in town. Virginia Tech is nestled in the mountains in a rural area, where the Hokies are king. That factor played a large role in DeBose’s decision.
“When I came here to Tech, it was just more of an open, home feeling,” DeBose said. “When I went up to Pitt, it was nice seeing the facility, being able to share the facilities with an NFL team. But here, it felt more ‘home.’ I felt more relaxed, I felt more comfortable, and I didn’t feel like that anywhere else but here.”
DeBose didn’t plan on redshirting when he signed with Virginia Tech in the Class of 2017. The thought playing as early as possible was one of the reasons he chose the Hokies over his other options in his recruitment. But once DeBose enrolled last summer, he quickly learned that he wasn’t ready to contribute just yet.
“Coming out of high school, it’s a humbling experience,” DeBose said. “I thought I knew a pretty good handful of the game, but really I still need to learn a lot about technique, reading formations, just small stuff like that to help better my game.”
Now, after a year of working on the scout team and developing all areas of his game, DeBose feels like redshirting was the right thing for his career.
“I honestly wanted to come in here and start and play early, but the coaches told me this was best for me,” DeBose said. “But what I got out of it was being able to learn more from the game, know what to do, get bigger, faster and stronger.”
DeBose enrolled at 6-foot-1 and 244 pounds, bigger than his freshmen defensive end compatriots, TyJuan Garbutt and Nathan Proctor. Both Garbutt and Proctor arrived at Virginia Tech under 220 pounds and needed time to grow physically. As it turned out, DeBose needed time to develop as well.
As disappointing as it was to sit out a season, it was easier for DeBose to go through a redshirt year alongside Garbutt and Proctor.
“Nate and Ty, we’re all in the same boat, so we all grow. It’s like we’re growing and going through the process at the same rate,” DeBose said. “It kind of comforted all three of us at the same time. But it’s time for us to get over that hump and be able to contribute to the team.”
DeBose isn’t likely to start in 2018. Trevon Hill has entrenched himself as a starter, and Houshun Gaines has been the most consistent defensive lineman this spring, according to defensive line coach Charley Wiles. Emmanuel Belmar has improved this spring as well and is probably Tech’s third end at the moment. But Wiles rotates his ends throughout the game, and if DeBose can prove a trustworthy contributor, he could see the field this fall.
“Honestly, all of us are in practice, working hard, taking advantage of each rep,” DeBose said. “We’re just going to continue to go hard at each rep and whatever the coaches feel like is best, then it’s best. But I feel like, me personally, I feel like I’m doing pretty good. I’ve still got a lot of work to do, but I feel like it’s pretty good.”
“They’re getting better each week,” Wiles said of his young defensive ends. “TyJuan had a little bit of a hamstring, he was probably a little better the week before. He went out and performed and had a solid performance Saturday. Zion took a real big step Saturday, I think, in terms of just playing at full speed. You hear that, ‘mind tying up your feet,’ but it’s really true.”
Head coach Justin Fuente mentioned on Tuesday that if the season started now, DeBose would likely be Virginia Tech’s fourth defensive end, a somewhat coveted role that would see the field for a decent amount of snaps.
“I guess if I was pressed on that answer right this moment it would probably be Zion, but I don’t know if that means anything moving forward,” Fuente said. “I just think he’s got a little better understanding of what we’re trying to accomplish. Playing defensive end has changed a lot in the last 10-15 years and it’s almost become like an outside linebacker position, and there’s a lot that goes with that.”