MISSOULA — Southern Utah’s Zach Larsen has to be vocal as the center on the offensive line who makes the calls and checks.
But he felt like he couldn’t be verbal outside his position group last season despite being a captain who would earn All-American honors. That’s changed this year.
“Last year, I felt like I was an underclassmen still so I didn’t have to speak out,” Larsen said. “This year, I felt like I need to be more of a vocal leader and help the underclassmen.”
Larsen’s leadership has been needed more than ever. The reigning Big Sky Conference co-champs lost their starting quarterback, have had minimal production from their preseason All-America tight end and are in the midst of an unexpected 1-7 start as the Montana Grizzlies head to Cedar City, Utah, this Saturday for a 1 p.m. kickoff.
Larsen didn’t waste time in taking on the role as a voice of the team. He called his first players-only meeting in a classroom on campus following a shocking loss in the season opener to North Alabama, a team making its Division I debut.
“He’s just responsible, holds guys accountable,” Southern Utah head coach Demario Warren said. “He’s been calling team meetings to keep the team together.
“He knows how important finishing strong is, even during a tough season. He wants to be able to leave a legacy at this program even though we’re struggling this year. I just really appreciate the effort and his dedication to the football program.”
Larsen has seen how much hard work and dedication can pay off. His brother Tyler Larsen is the Carolina Panthers’ center, and another brother, Cody Larsen, got a shot in the NFL on the offensive line after going to Southern Utah.
At 6-foot-1, Larsen doesn’t have the height his brothers do at 6-foot-4. He makes his impact with his attention to detail and consistency, in addition to his newfound voice.
“He’s a tough, tough kid,” Warren said. “The way he plays, play after play, and to be able to continue to fight like he does and be able to be consistent and be durable, that’s something that really stands out to me.”
Larsen prides himself on being a physical player up front. He’s worked on his footwork and technique as a blocker. Mentally, he’s focused on recognizing blitzes quicker and making adjustments at the line based on looks from the defense.
As an offensive lineman, there’s no individual stats for him to hang his hat on. There are awards, though, and he was named a Preseason All-American by HERO Sports and Athlon Sports. That came after a sophomore season in which he made the STATS FCS All-American Third Team and was a Phil Steele FCS All-American and a HERO Sports Sophomore All-American.
The awards are nice, but Larsen is driven by a desire to win as a team. That’s where the newfound leadership comes into play.
“I’ll do whatever it takes to win,” Larsen said. “I don’t care if I have a bad game. I just want to do whatever I can to make sure my team wins.”
Southern Utah’s offensive line is the strength of its team with five upperclassmen, including three fifth-year players. Four of them have started all eight games: Larsen, senior left tackle Tucker Marquez, senior right guard Austin Mikkelson and junior right tackle Josh McMillin. Redshirt junior left guard Josh Anderson has started in four games and played in all eight.
“Our O-Line’s been working together for a while now,” Warren said. “We’ve got one of the best groups in the country. I wish we could have some success down the stretch to reward those guys for doing such a good job.”
The group will be going up against a Montana defensive line than Larsen said moves around pre-snap more than any FCS team they’ve played.
“The biggest thing is how aggressive they are,” Larsen said. “Their D-Line and linebackers, you can see how fired up they are to play. They just hit you in the mouth.”
But those hits can’t keep Larsen from talking.
Frank Gogola covers Griz football and prep sports for the Missoulian. Follow him on Twitter @FrankGogola or email him at Frank.Gogola@406mtsports.com.