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COC's Ryan Zirbel: Rushing back to form

Former Saugus great is trying to recapture the spotlight with the Cougars

Posted: September 5, 2010 8:52 p.m.
Updated: September 6, 2010 4:55 a.m.

Former Saugus running back Ryan Zirbel (5) rushes against Santa Maria in 2008. Zirbel is hoping a big season with College of the Canyons will attract NCAA Division I schools.

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Two years ago, it was impossible to talk about Foothill League football and not bring up the name Ryan Zirbel.

In 2008, Saugus’ dynamic running back teamed with quarterback Desi Rodriguez to deliver the Centurions their first-ever Foothill League title.

For Zirbel, a scholarship to a four-year university seemed imminent.

Then all went quiet.

When the scholarship talks subsided, he landed at COC, and now entering his second year with the Cougars, Zirbel is ready to re-establish himself as a premier back and earn the scholarship that once eluded him.

“I just want to show people that I’m not just one of those high school running backs that comes here and dies out,” he says. “I want to show them that I can still play.”

At Saugus, Zirbel rushed for 5,234 yards and 79 touchdowns over his career, capturing the attention of Portland State University.

But when Zirbel declined to make the early commitment to the program, the Vikings decided to move in another direction.
The sting is still there, but soon, NCAA Division I offers could be as well.

A breakout season for the nationally recognized Cougars could attract other programs, including Louisville, which Zirbel says has expressed interest.

He knows it won’t come easy, though.

“I thought you just have to come, and all of a sudden a school would come (for you),” he says. “You can’t do that. You have to work at it. You have to get on film. You’ve got to compete here because we are getting the best athletes around. It’s totally different than high school.”

Last year, Zirbel found himself in a crowded backfield with B.J. Iverson and Valencia graduate Nick Hale.

Carries were sparse, and it wasn’t until the end of the season that he began to see his reps increase.

Zirbel finished his freshman season with 67 carries for 348 yards and two touchdowns.

It was a far cry from the high production he had become accustomed to at Saugus.

“And then coming here and not paying as much, being at the bottom of the depth chart, it was kind of weird,” Zirbel says. “But I kept working and working and didn’t quit. Going from high school to college is a big learning curve. It’s faster. Guys are bigger. Basically, last year was a learning curve for me.”

Even COC running backs coach Mike Kane was surprised by Zirbel’s lack of action.

“I thought Ryan deserved a little more time last year, but for whatever reason he didn’t get it,” Kane says. “What you see with that is a lot of mental toughness from Ryan because it is tough for a kid who had such a tremendous high school career to not get as many carries as he deserved.”

Zirbel entered his second season expecting to compete for playing time once again.

However, Hale, his primary competition, got a tryout with the University of Nevada, Reno over the summer and earned a scholarship.

Now it’s Zirbel’s show.

“Once I found out Nick was leaving for Reno for sure, I walked up to Ryan and said, ‘Dude, no excuses now. It’s all you buddy,’” says Cougars head coach Garett Tujague. “And he’s taken the ball and literally run with it.”

In the weight room, Zirbel credits COC strength and conditioning coach Robert dos Remedios for taking his training a new level and pushing him farther than he ever thought he could go.

On the practice field, he presses Kane for advice and criticism.

As the former head coach at West Ranch, Kane knows firsthand what Zirbel is capable of.

“I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a back run for more 80-yard runs than Ryan Zirbel,” he says. “It seemed like every time you turned the film on and watched and scouted him, he was busting 80-yard runs. As an opposing coach, that’s hard to watch.”

Now, the same skills he demonstrated wearing silver and blue are translating.

Tujague says Zirbel is more controlled, fluid and playing with better vision.

“Wow, what a difference a year has made for him,” Tujague says.

The biggest difference, however, is his blocking ability.

Zirbel says his poor pass protection was the biggest aspect of his game that prevented him from getting a scholarship out of high school.

It’s a problem that has since been remedied.

“I would say he is an all-around great back now,” Kane says. “We know he can run, and we know he can catch the ball. Now we know he can block.”

It could prove to be the final piece of the puzzle for the local talent who once ruled the headlines.

This season will truly tell what lays ahead for the running back.

With success, he could begin to realize his dream of playing at the college level and eventually the NFL.

It’s a path other COC running backs have traversed.

Zirbel hopes he is next.

“I wouldn’t bet against him, that’s for sure,” Kane says.

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