At the time, none of the Longhorns players knew what to expect.
On Nov. 26, 2016, the University of Texas announced the firing of Charlie Strong as football coach. The very next day, the school named Tom Herman as his replacement.
Like the rest of his teammates, Zach Shackelford was initially shaken by the news of Strong’s firing. The UT players loved and respected the no-nonsense coach who had recruited them. They only knew Herman by name or reputation.
But, ultimately, Shackelford accepted the change and made the most of it.
It’s what he has been doing his whole life.
“It’s difficult sometimes,” said UT’s senior center from Belton. “Transitions can be hard. You don’t know what’s going to happen. And I’ve had a lot of transitions being a military kid, and I didn’t know what was going to happen sometimes. But you trust it, you keep working hard, stay low to the ground, and you hope that it turns out right. It’s turned out awesome.”
Shackelford’s father Lyle, a former University of Central Florida offensive lineman, works as a military chaplain. Before Zach turned 13, he’d already lived in Ohio, Washington state, and Germany.
Zach learned not to complain. It’s the life his family chose. You roll with it.
“The family of an individual in the Army really does serve as much as they do,” Shackelford said. “Besides obviously deploying, it’s very much service-oriented all the way around. So I think I’ve been able to take that and apply the experiences that I’ve had and just develop my personal attitude about certain things as a result of those experiences. It’s been hard at times, but it’s been awesome as well.”
Zach – aka “Shack” – said that his father’s various deployments, sometimes in combat areas, gave him a healthy dose of perspective at a young age. From his parents, he inherited a deep sense of discipline and a rugged work ethic. He wouldn’t be the same football player – or man – he is today without it.
“My dad and my mom, they both kept me grounded over the years,” Shackelford said. “Teaching me how to be a man, teaching me how to lead. The Army, they stress leadership a lot. Accountability, and all the stuff we stress in our program at Texas. There’s a lot of correlations.”
When he was 13, Zach’s family moved to Belton. He towered over most of the kids in his class, but did not lack for dexterity. Shackelford competed in the Junior Olympics when he was 8 years old – as a swimmer.
At Belton, Shackelford started all four years on the offensive line for then-coach Bob Shipley’s Tigers. He pushed many an opposing defender around, and his senior year of 2015 he was named both first-team Super Centex and first-team all-state.
Shackelford originally committed to Kansas State, but later changed his mind and switched his pledge to Texas. He found himself drawn to Strong’s honesty and vision for the program. He graduated from Belton a semester early and joined the Longhorns in January of 2016, so he could go through spring ball.
Shackelford started his first college game that fall, a 50-47 upset of No. 10 Notre Dame. What a debut, right? If college was like this, what a ride it was going to be.
The potholes lurked just around the corner. Texas won only four of its next 11 games after the vanquishing of the Irish. Shackelford played well enough to be named a freshman All-American by the Football Writers Association of America. But then Strong was fired, and Herman came in, and like the rest of UT’s players Shack didn’t know where he stood.
In short order, Herman’s coaching staff let Shackelford know the expectations. They envisioned him as a potential leader on the line, but he needed to get bigger, stronger to better withstand the pounding of a Big 12 season.
Yes, sir. No problem, sir. Ask Shackelford to do a job, and it’ll get done. The weight room became his second home. Last year he blossomed, starting 10 of UT’s 11 games and earning first-team all-conference honors.
Quarterback Sam Ehlinger may be the man in Austin. But, know this: The ball doesn’t touch his hands without going through Shackelford’s first.
“He’s a very disciplined young man that is probably, him and Sam Ehlinger, are probably our two most vocal leaders offensively. We’re proud to have him,” Herman said. “We think he’s as good a center as there is in the country.
“He’s brilliant when it comes to making the calls. The center is kind of the quarterback of the offensive line, and he’s really the glue that holds that group together.”
Shackelford appreciates the compliment, but takes such praise in stride. He’s seen the other side. The watch lists and preseason teams are nice, but this is a guy who appreciates the art of staying grounded, after all.
“I’ve been on both sides of the spectrum. I’ve gotten bad press and I’ve gotten good press,” Shackelford said. “So I try to keep a level head throughout it all, and I try not to let anything affect me good or bad.”
It’s only a short 57-minute drive from Austin to Belton, but Shackelford doesn’t get back very often anymore. His girlfriend’s family still lives there, so that gives him the occasional excuse. But Zach’s parents moved to New Jersey in February, the latest landing spot for the nomadic military lifers.
Over the past three years in Austin, Shackelford has witnessed his own share of detours down side streets he wasn’t expecting.
When that happens, he simply tightens his grip and keeps plowing forward.
“It’s been a wild ride,” he said. “A lot of highs, a lot of lows. But I’m thankful and grateful for all those moments, because it’s ultimately what made me into the person I am today. It’s been a unique journey, it’s been a fun journey, and it’s been rewarding.”
Head coach: Tom Herman (17-10 in two years at Baylor; 39-14 in four years overall)
2018 record: 10-4 (7-2 Big 12)
Last bowl game: 2018 Sugar Bowl (beat Georgia, 28-21)
Returning starters: 5 offense, 3 defense, 3 specialists
Stadium: Darrel K. Royal Memorial Stadium
8/31 Louisiana Tech 7 p.m.
9/7 LSU 6:30 p.m.
9/14 at Rice 7 p.m.
9/21 Oklahoma State TBA
10/5 at WVU TBA