Linebacker Zack Follett Brings His Tenacity and Blue-Collar Mentality to Detroit and the NFL

Photo: <b>Zack Follett</b> was drafted in the seventh round by the Detroit Lions on day two of the 2009 NFL Draft.
Salgu Wissmath/File
Zack Follett was drafted in the seventh round by the Detroit Lions on day two of the 2009 NFL Draft.

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Zack Follett waited through 234 names without hearing his.

Finally, late Sunday afternoon, the Detroit Lions announced it as the 235th overall pick of the 2009 NFL Draft. Follett expressed thank-you's to friends and family, and then he shut off his dying cell phone and went outside.

"I went out there with my cousins and just played some football for a good hour and a half, just like I used to when I was a kid," Follett says on Sunday evening in a teleconference with the local media.

After four years spent patrolling Strawberry Canyon, Follett has realized his dream of reporting to an NFL camp as a draftee.

He had to wait a little longer than expected to find out where he was headed, though. Projected as a middle-round talent, the former Cal linebacker dropped all the way to the middle of the final round -- a fall that, he says, might be less of a disappointment and more a blessing in disguise.

"I look at it like what's God trying to teach me in situations like that?" says Follett. "This just humbled the crap out of me, to tell you the truth. I'm not gonna be going in with a big head, thinking this and that. I'm gonna have to work that much harder."

Work won't be a problem for the self-described "blue-collar" backer. What might be are the nagging neck problems that have bothered Follett since high school -- the result of a bulging disc -- and were aggravated in 2007 when he suffered a neck stinger in his junior season with the Bears.

It's already affected his professional career before he has played a down. Follett's agent, according to the linebacker, told him after he fell to the seventh round that Follett had failed the physicals of a number of teams because of that medical history. Follett even said that he would have considered retirement if the potential health ramifications had worried teams enough to let him go undrafted.

Now that that isn't the case, what's his response to those teams that passed over him?

"They're gonna pay for it," says Follett. "I'm gonna go out there and hit their players and take them out of the game.

"But I'm excited. They're going to give me a good shot over at the Lions. They're the ones who put their neck out and drafted me."

And he isn't going to let his neck slow him down. Not a chance. It didn't alter the way he played the game in high school, or after the stinger in 2007 that caused him to miss the second half of the Louisiana Tech game and all of the Bears' games against Arizona and Oregon.

He still finished that season leading the team in tackles for loss (12.5) and sacks (5.5), and he thrived while learning Cal's 3-4 defense during the 2008 season, racking up 10.5 sacks and forcing five fumbles -- the stat that he's admitted being most proud of because it shows that he's "a hitter."

"I try my best to keep my head up and stuff like that," he says. "But it's bred in me. You guys kinda see how I play. When I see somebody with the ball, if I get a chance to hit somebody as hard as I can, I'm gonna do it."

The 3-4 was a showcase for his tenacity and playmaking ability, as well as that of the rest of Cal's linebacking corps. But two of the other backers for whom the scheme was adopted -- Worrell Williams and Anthony Felder -- were skipped over altogether on draft day. Defensive end Rulon Davis went undrafted, too.

It's something that Follett doesn't entirely understand. That defense was the heart of the Bears in 2008, carrying the team to nine wins despite an offense that was shaky at best, downright ineffective at worst. The linebackers were the core, and Felder and Williams combined with Follett for 244 tackles, 33.5 of which came in the opposing backfield.

"It is disappointing," says Follett. "We have a lot of good players here at Cal, and the fact that (USC) pumps out all these guys, I don't know what it is ... because I know for a fact that these guys (on the Trojans) aren't that much better than us."

Four USC linebackers were drafted before Follett, three in the first two rounds.

"All four of those linebackers went and I'm sitting there just amazed," he says.

"Our numbers are better than every linebacker in the country, but it's cool."

It's cool because with that blue-collar mentality that he, Williams and Felder all share, Follett has no doubt that they all will make an impact at an NFL camp.

"That's how we got to where we are," he says. "Nothing was ever really given to us, so I think we'll prove our way in and we'll beat out a lot of guys who kind of had things given to them on the road to the NFL."

Follett is flying out to Detroit on Thursday. He's never been to the Motor City. The closest he has come is Chicago, although he watched the Lions as a kid during the Barry Sanders days.

Things are a little different now in Detroit, though. Follett is going to be part of a massive rebuilding project after the Lions went 0-16 last season. As of Sunday evening, he hasn't spoken with anyone enough to get a clear sense of where he fits into Detroit's scheme right now. His master plan for making the Lions' roster is to "go out on kickoff and blow some guys up" -- let the pads do the talking, the same way he got himself noticed a few years ago as the new kid in the Cal program.

"You've just got to be on the field to make a play," he says. "I'm gonna find a way to get on the field whether I'm starting or I'm on special teams. I'm gonna keep flying around trying to make a name for myself."

You believe it'll happen, too. After three years of watching him play, even after 15 minutes of hearing him talk, you can't help but believe it.


Contact Matt Kawahara at [email protected]

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