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Zack Mercado’s father reached out to one of the most prominent line coaches, and there was no hesitation to work out with the young phenom from Vacaville Christian.
Aaron Day, a defensive line trainer who focuses on rushing the passer, saw it all when Mercado’s father connected with him, and he has seen why those around Mercado rave about the defensive lineman every chance they can.
“With him it’s the ability to pick up things quickly and to put them to use,” Day said. “I give him a couple moves, I try not to put too much on his plate, but he’s been able to surpass my expectations and just keep going. He’s very tenacious, really attacks things. He has an ability to bend and not only just bend, but he can put his hands in the ground and muscle people out of his way. He’s very strong.
“He’s a special talent.”
Mercado’s first varsity campaign his sophomore season in 2019 said it all.
In Vacaville Christian’s run to a 7-5 record and a Sac-Joaquin Section Division VII semifinals appearance, which was the program’s first playoff appearance since 2014 and was also a year when it won its first playoff game since 2011, Mercado was dominant every step of the way. He registered 119 tackles, 26 tackles for loss, 10 sacks, three forced fumbles, 28 hurries and one blocked punt, earning his way to Defensive Player of the Year honors in the region
And Mercado reminds Vacaville Christian head coach Manny Tarango of Armon Bailey, who is now a linebacker at Sacramento State and played for Tarango when Tarango was a defensive coordinator at Vanden.
Both players are intentional. They’re deliberate. They’re extremely hard on themselves, no matter how well they performed or what type of big play they just made.
“Zack pushes himself and holds himself to such a high standard,” Tarango said. “This is a guy that wakes up and watches film on a game and says, ‘My hand placement when I was holding that B gap was off six inches. And if I had got a little bit lower, I would have been able to push the pocket and I would have been able to get that sack instead of the quarterback hurry.’”
There is still so much more room for Mercado to grow, which is exactly what he has done during this extended offseason before his junior season officially rolls around in a few months.
Mercado is 6-2 and 245 pounds and has been a menace at every showcase he’s attended, displaying a burst right away that is tricky for any opposing offensive lineman to maneuver against.
“He has the athleticism to be able to move and pull, but he has the strength and the power to be able to just be, he can be like an Aaron Donald,” Tarango said. “He can hold a gap. He can change the direction of a game, and he’s only 6-2, 245. He’s still growing. But he plays like he’s much bigger. He’s super humble. He’s one of those guys that is very quiet in the classroom.
“He just gets in, does his work, 3.8 GPA, but he’s just so cognizant of what he’s doing and how he’s doing it, and he plays with such a reckless abandonment.”
The sky is only the limit from here going forward.
With 26 tackles for loss and 10 sacks as just a sophomore for a team that went as far as it did a year ago, the expectations are higher now. Once colleges can start recruiting in person again – the NCAA dead period was extended to Jan. 1, 2020 – Day sees the recruiting process taking off for Mercado.
“I think once they physically see the kid that they’ll see on film, especially this season, because his film is going to be very, very good,” Day said. “Once they see him in person, they can put somebody physically in front of them and see what he’s all about. He’s going to start taking off as far as offers come or just attention.”
“It’s going to help me with everything – recruiting, in game, just everything, the proper technique that he’s telling me to do,” Mercado said. “It’s just on the field, off the field, just me as a person – it’s going to help with everything.”
Maybe another Defensive Player of the Year award is on the way, too.
“I can’t say enough about Zack Mercado,” Tarango said. “The kid has a motor. I think we might see our first two-time Defensive Player of the Year out of this season because I just don’t know if they’ll be able to block him. He’s bigger, stronger, faster, and he has an unrelentless will to succeed. I just love Zack.”
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