Freshman Zach Edwards arrived this year as a transitioning former receiver challenged by his first college experience but he's quickly emerged as the lone true freshman starter in his class.
CINCINNATI - For one play, for one brief moment, the turf of Nippert Stadium surrounded by 32,000-plus fans felt like an average Friday night in Middletown for Zach Edwards.
The Bearcats freshman safety spotted a P.J. Walker pass floating deep into the secondary toward a Temple receiver and instincts from years of tracking down touchdown passes as a receiver for the Middies at Barnitz Stadium took over.
Edwards added safety to his receiver repertoire only one year ago during his senior season, but when opportunities like his interception to help put away the Owls Friday night present themselves, drawing a distinction between offense and defense blurs. .
"It did feel like high school. I went up for the ball just like a receiver, just like high school," Edwards said. "Football is football."
And Edwards owns the instincts to play it, no matter the position. That's why he's emerged as the only true freshman starter on the Bearcats depth chart. For a team craving production in the secondary, Edwards earned it. He leads the team with two interceptions following his second-quarter pick that eventually provided a lead the Bearcats wouldn't relinquish in beating the Owls.
No play more typified playmaking the 5-11, 186-pound Edwards provides as the third safety in spread defense packages than this one.
"That wasn't his guy they were throwing to and he made up ground flipping his hips and covering ground with his long legs intercepting the pass," Tommy Tuberville said. "It's good to know he's going to be back for three years. A safety you can count on playing the middle."
The surprise comes in Edwards touching the field so soon. Few expected this inexperienced converted wide receiver from Middletown to be a factor, or even much more than a difficult redshirt decision upon his arrival. Yet, he caught coaches eyes in the spring and preseason, including a scrimmage where he hauled in two interceptions.
Suddenly, the expectation changed.
"Right after spring ball when we had the break (defensive backs coach Steven Clinkscale) and coach Tuberville both sat me down and said I was going to be in the rotation, I'd be fighting for a starting position," he said. "That right that made me aware I might have to play and start and I'm going to have to get on my game."
Inserted as a starter for the first time against Northwestern State Edwards grabbed his first career interception. The last two weeks he returned to the same spot in the starting lineup and continues to earn the trust of coaches and teammates alike.
He's now fifth on the team in tackles (21) and has a pass breakup and forced fumble to go with his two picks.
"I've always been in a position where we are going to play our best players and the guys that are doing all the things right on and off the field," Clinkscale said. "It's not my first time starting true freshman. I am not scared at all to do it and Zach kind of helps that because he's a lot more mature then your usual freshman and handles the responsibility very well."
Not without criticism, of course. Every Tuesday Tuberville and company challenge Edwards with tackling drills on the sled and perfecting pursuit angles. As with many receivers, he's still adapting to physicality and the tendency to always attempt the big play.
Clinkscale preaches not being afraid to execute the job and pass on the highlight interception attempt. All will come with time, but Edwards owns plenty of it.
"He's got a lot to learn, he makes a lot of mistakes in the game," Tuberville said. "Through the first six games I've been very surprised how he's picked up what we are doing."
After each game, the first conversation goes to his mother and a second usually to close friend and former Middletown teammate Cody Quinn, a sophomore corner at Kentucky.
At home games mom talks near the field, if away a phone call will suffice. Originally, the excitement would span on and on as the two relived his opportunities. Now, they've drawn a little shorter each week as his playmaking shifts from surprising to standard.
Still hard to believe this former receiver from Middletown broke out as the current star of this freshmen class, but with every play like the one against Temple, his arrival becomes more believable.
"It's been a wild ride," Edwards said. "It's a lot of hard work put into it. I knew it would be hard picking it up, only played one year as a safety so I knew it was going to be hard. I just kept pushing and keeping the faith I could do it."
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