Zac Dawe has become a high-impact player for BYU’s defense, but it was a long road to get here

BYU's Zac Dawe (99) reacts after making a play during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Navy, Monday, Sept. 7, 2020, in Annapolis, Md. (AP Photo/Tommy Gilligan)

Provo • BYU senior defensive end Zac Dawe played a starring role in the Cougars' road win at Houston last Friday, but it wasn’t that long ago that he had lost his spot on the team and almost didn’t have the opportunity to play college football at all.
Returning to Houston, where the defensive lineman served a two-year church mission out of high school, Dawe’s performance was what he called an “emotional experience.” He remembered the two years spent knocking on doors and falling in love with the people of Texas.
On Friday, it all spilled out on the field.
The senior played a big role in No. 12 BYU’s comeback win, finishing with career-high tackles (8) and tackles for loss (3), while also nailing a key sack on a third down to force a punt.
Dawe provided a lift to a BYU defense that was without junior Lorenzo Fauatea (out for the year) and Khyiris Tonga (illness).
“Houston thought they had the home field advantage, but really I felt just so much at home and had so many great memories of working hard,” Dawe said. “I just knew that the people of Houston were watching me and were there for me, so every single snap it was just kind of like an emotional experience. Even feeling the humidity brought so many memories back. So, just to go down there and just to play football and finally make it back to Houston, it was just a real experience for me and also my family.”
Dawe signed as a defensive end with BYU in 2014, his senior year at Pleasant Grove. After serving his mission, Dawe accepted his scholarship offer and enrolled at BYU, but instead found himself on the Cougar offense.
When Dawe had finally moved to Provo, BYU had a completely new coaching staff than the one that had recruited him. Instead of being led by Bronco Mendenhall, the Cougars were being guided by then-first-year coach Kalani Sitake.
With older brother Parker on the Cougars' offensive line, the staff decided to move Dawe over to offense as well.
While trying to put on weight to play offensive lineman, Dawe suffered a season-ending back injury. Suddenly, his collegiate career was in jeopardy.
“The coaches really didn’t know what to do with me,” Dawe said. “There was a mix-up — they thought I was going to be healthy to come back and play the next year, so the advice I was given was to leave and come back the following season.”
Not knowing what was going to happen, Dawe took a job as a security guard at Nu Skin, working graveyard shifts and training during the day. At the same time, Dawe had withdrawn from school.
“It was kind of a rough time for me just because I didn’t know if I was going to be able to come back and play football again — if that would be an option,” Dawe said. “And also, I just really didn’t know where I was going in my life.”
At LaVell Edwards Stadium

When • Saturday, 8:15 p.m.

Over the next year, Dawe continued working out to get back. But when he tried going back to the Cougars, because he had left, the Pleasant Grove native had lost his scholarship and BYU didn’t have any open spots.
Once again, Dawe was left confused about what he would do.
“But I just thought I’d take a chance and trust in myself,” Dawe said.
Dawe took a chance and joined the team as a walk-on in January 2018. The Cougars already had too many defensive linemen, but Dawe just wanted a chance. After six months of working out with the team, at the end of spring evaluations, BYU offered Dawe a scholarship spot again that fall.
Coaches initially placed Dawe at tackle and nose guard, so he put on 50 pounds. But Dawe was still determined to eventually get to his dream position at defensive end and was able to drop the weight again at the end of last year to get there.
“It’s been quite an adventure, but so many people have been awesome,” Dawe said. “Just the coaches have really been awesome and understanding of my situation and have brought a lot of hope in me and bringing me back and just coaching me up as if I never left. It’s given me some great opportunities.”
While the whole ordeal got discouraging at times, Dawe focused on the fact that he could do it — he could play college football. Whatever thoughts he had, even if negative, Dawe realized he was ultimately the only one in charge of his decisions.
Assistant coach Preston Hadley doesn’t work closely with Dawe, as he’s the safeties position coach, but has been around Dawe through the defense as a whole and believes the senior is one of the toughest players on the team.
The defensive lineman is also a great example of resilience, which is what the coaches look for in players that hope to play at BYU, Hadley said. And it’s been good to see the success knowing what Dawe has gone through.
“I think it matters to his teammates, too,” Hadley said. “They notice. They know the struggles that he’s been through and growth and stuff. It’s great for the culture of the team. Culture will always trump strategy. … I think Zac’s a great player, but he’s also great for the culture on our team.”
Luckily for Dawe, his previous obstacles have helped him navigate through the pandemic. The senior understands how the game can be taken away suddenly, so they have to use each opportunity, each game to show up and do their best.
So far, while having lost the strongest independent-era schedule, the Cougars have taken advantage of each opportunity they’ve been given. And if the team stays humble and bonded together, Dawe believes BYU will have a very successful year.
“It’s kind of a weird year, but I think, honestly, the sky’s the limit for this team,” Dawe said. “As long as we keep buying in to what the coaches are doing and as long as we stay bonded as we have, the sky’s the limit.”
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