Knoxville (Tenn.) Catholic two-way lineman Zak Tait was on his way to being one of the top prospects in the class of 2009 just months ago. Tait was identified by Rivals.com as one of 100 players to watch in the class of 2009 heading into the 2008 season.
As a sophomore Tait showed great athleticism for a big man, excelling in Knox Catholic's wing-T offense, pulling through holes and clearing the path for ball carriers. He also was a disruptive force on the defensive side of the ball, dominating as a young sophomore on his team's undefeated regular season run.
Heading into his junior season, college coaches were calling his school, mail from programs from around the country was flowing in and scholarship offers were not far behind. However, after one play halfway through his junior season, all of those developments and expectations were put on hold when Tait sustained a devastating knee injury.
"I was playing left defensive tackle on the short side of the field," Tait said. "They were in shotgun, four wides, they ran a draw and I ran upfield and tried to cut back and my right leg gave out. My left leg got caught in the ground and it tore up my left knee. Then people started falling on it and piling on top of it."
The result of the pile up was an ACL, MCL and PCL tear but the news wasn't all bad. There was no meniscus or cartilage damage and some quick work but the medical staff on hand was crucial in his recovery.
"I didn't even know what had happened until I woke up the next morning," he said. "I had surgery two or three hours after it happened. They called the ambulance and got me off the field and got me to the hospital right away."
Tait can now officially be taken off the list of the top prospects in the class of 2009. But go ahead and pencil him in for one of the top players in the class of 2010.
Due to the severity of the injury, Tait has been taking time off of school in order to give his knee the best chance at recovery. Now Tait has essentially decided to 'redshirt' and has a given himself a very unique opportunity.
Young for his class anyway, Tait has not returned to school since his injury and will be re-enrolling next fall as a junior for the start of the 2008 school year. Tait will then sit out the 2008 football season which will allow him to remain eligible for his new senior season in 2009.
The action has been approved by the TSSAA which serves as the state's governing body for high school athletics. Though this may not have been the way Tait would have scripted his high school career, in the long run, it may be Tait's future opponents that are getting the worst deal of all.
"I've been really just working out and rehabbing as much as I can," he said. "I have a tutor a couple of times a week and I'm reading a lot of books. I feel real good about what my doctors are going to do and what they have done."
After his initial surgery to repair his MCL, Tait hit the weight room and put over 50 pounds on his bench press in a matter of months. He recently had his second surgery, during which his PCL and ACL were repaired using cadavers and now he is itching to get back to work.
Throughout the process, Tait has been working hard with his strength coach and defensive coordinator Kevin Smith.
"Basically we've been going three days a week, Monday, Wednesday and Friday," Smith said. "You're talking about a kid who was a 265 bencher right before the season started, maintained his strength and then after the surgery and within seven or eight weeks he's benching 325 and he's 16 years old. That's just impressive not only for the age of the kid but 2, having a major injury, knowing he's got another surgery coming up and still coming in three days a week, meeting his coach, never late, always on time and busting it as hard as he does it just speaks volumes to the type of kid Zak is."
While serious injuries often raise questions to college recruiters, Tait's situation may end up removing any doubts as opposed to bringing up new ones. Tait will have almost two full years to recover the knee injury and throughout that period, he will be able to develop the parts of his game that have needed improvement.
"In my opinion, when he comes back, he'll be able to go to a college and immediately step on campus and fight for playing time if not start," Smith explained. "It's going to help him with his upper-body strength. It's going to help him get some of that baby fat off him. He's going to be able to mature and grow and what people don't understand is the kid can play nose guard or three-technique in any system. When that big body gets out there with more strength, I really feel sorry for the opposition."
The injury and his approach to the rehab could end up being a blessing in disguise for the talented prospect but that won't make the waiting game any easier to handle.
"I'm really, really anxious to go out there and prove people wrong," Tait said. "A lot of people are thinking that this injury is so severe that I can't come back from it. I'm ready to prove that I'm better than ever. Right now, it's just a long time away. I'm just ready to be back. I just want to get my leg back to 100% and really work on my leadership skills."
As Tait works to improve so many aspects of his game, college coaches haven't slowed on his recruitment.
"When I first got hurt, a couple of coaches sent hand-written letters and called the students at Catholic and asked how I was doing," he said. "They've stayed in touch and the recruiting process never really died down."
The process likely won't die down for Tait. Instead, the young man simply gets an extra year: an extra year of recruitment, an extra year of development, an extra year of maturation.
Zak, welcome to the class of 2010.