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From the graveyard shift to burying quarterbacks — how BYU’s Zac Dawe went from night security guard to sack specialist

Senior defensive tackle from Pleasant Grove made a key sack in BYU’s 43-26 win over Houston and a big QB hurry in the Cougars’ 52-14 win over Texas State

BYU defensive lineman Zac Dawe (99) celebrates after the play during game against the Navy , Monday, Sept. 7, 2020, in Annapolis, Md.
AP Photo/Tommy Gilligan

If you think it was hard to watch BYU’s 2017 football season, the one in which the Cougars lost nine games for the first time since 1955 and missed a bowl game for the first time since 2004, you should have been in Zac Dawe’s shoes.

Dawe, a defensive lineman who signed with BYU in 2014 out of Pleasant Grove High and redshirted in 2016 after a church mission to Houston, had begrudgingly left the team at the time and was working as a night security guard at Nu Skin Enterprises.

So the massive man, now listed at 6-foot-4 and 271 pounds, watched almost every game during that 4-9 season on the JumboTron-like big screen television in Nu Skin’s spacious lobby as he made his rounds through the facility, feeling helpless as his former teammates struggled in coach Kalani Sitake’s second year.

“It was so, so hard,” Dawe said. “I just wanted to be back out there on the field with my friends, doing the thing I loved. That was my dream.”

With the help of his parents and family, Utah County-based trainer Mike Stroshine of Stroformance and several BYU defensive coaches, Dawe made that dream happen. He’s a valuable contributor on a BYU defense that’s ranked No. 13 in the country in both fewest yards allowed per game (284.5) and fewest points allowed per game (14.0).

Flash forward from those graveyard shifts in downtown Provo to No. 11 BYU’s 52-14 win over Texas State last Saturday night. That was Dawe, now a senior defensive end, chasing TSU quarterback Brady McBride when he made a rushed throw that was picked off by Isaiah Kaufusi and returned for a 32-yard touchdown.

Without Dawe’s dogged pursuit of the Bobcats’ passer, that defining moment of fellow senior Kaufusi’s career probably doesn’t happen.

“You look at the plays that he is making, it is because of his hard work and belief in himself,” Sitake said Monday. “To go from someone that was told he was done and should (hang up the cleats), you talk about a person who appreciates every snap he gets, Zac Dawe is the definition of that.”

In BYU’s 43-26 win over Houston the previous week, Dawe turned in his best game as a Cougar, making a huge sack on UH quarterback Clayton Tune and finishing with a career-high eight tackles.

“There have been a lot of ups and downs, a lot of emotional experiences,” Dawe said last week. “Now I am savoring every minute of it.”

And well he should.

After winning two heavyweight state wrestling championships at Pleasant Grove, Dawe accepted then-coach Bronco Mendenhall’s scholarship offer and followed his brother, Parker Dawe, to Provo as a three-star prospect with a promising future. But when Zac Dawe returned from Houston, a new coaching staff was in place and he made the switch to offensive line.

“It just wasn’t a great fit for me,” Zac said. “I was only 240 pounds after my mission, and kinda out of shape. Then I had to put on weight because O-linemen are quite a bit bigger.”

And then he hurt his back. Medical professionals suggested he take a year off, and some advised him to give up the sport entirely.

“I left school and was just trying to figure out my life from there,” he said.

The desire to play still burned, so he spent his nights at Nu Skin and his days rehabbing his back and training with Stroshine in his hometown of Pleasant Grove.

“There were a lot of uncertainties that I would ever be able to play college football again, and insecurities in my own head about whether I could still perform and excel at the Division I level,” he said. “But I kept getting faster and stronger and I learned I was very comparable to other defensive players in college football (who also trained at Stroformance).”

Navy quarterback Dalen Morris (8) looks to pass as BYU defensive lineman Zac Dawe applies pressure during the second half of an NCAA college football game, Monday, Sept. 7, 2020, in Annapolis, Md.
Tommy Gilliga, Associateds Press

In January 2018, Zac Dawe returned to the BYU football team as a walk-on, but insisted he play on the defensive line, the position he excelled at in high school when he wasn’t pinning overmatched wrestling opponents in record time.

He was so impressive in spring camp that year that coaches offered him a scholarship in fall camp of 2018. He made 16 tackles in 2018, and tallied his first sack in BYU’s 24-21 upset of No. 6 Wisconsin at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison.

“He came back and walked on and it was pretty evident that he was going to need a scholarship right away,” Sitake said.

In 2019, Dawe started in two games, played in all 13, and memorably chucked Tennessee quarterback Jarrett Guarantano’s shoe to the sidelines before the Cougars upset the Vols 29-26 in double overtime. Somehow, he wasn’t flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct.

“Hey, I am an emotional guy,” he said. “It is just addicting to play football and be a part of a team. I have just continued to prepare for those big opportunities when they come.”

Safeties coach Preston Hadley, also a PG graduate, said Dawe has emerged as one of the Cougars’ emotional leaders. His teammates draw inspiration from his comeback, illustrated when injured tight end Matt Bushman tweeted after the Houston game that “Not many people realize what Zac Dawe went through during his career. From O-line, to injured, to off the team, to night-shift security guard, to walk-on, to impact player! He’s had to earn everything back.”

Last February, Dawe married former Alta High and Gonzaga soccer star Isabel Jones, who is finishing her college career this year as a goalkeeper for Utah Valley University’s team.

“Luckily, I convinced her to move down here,” he said. “Thank goodness.”

Dawe will graduate in December with a degree in exercise and wellness, then turn his attention to the NFL.

“So that’s the next goal,” he said.

Until then, he’s determined to see the BYU football program complete its own turnaround from that rough go in 2017. His has already happened.