Griffin Zajac admitted he was caught off-guard this summer.
The St. Ambrose junior cornerback was one of just four defensive backs named to the 2019 College Football America Yearbook NAIA preseason All-American team, a recognition of how much he accomplished after just one season of varsity football for the Fighting Bees.
"I was shocked," Zajac said. "It was my first year playing varsity football for college, first ever year just playing college football. It's obviously a nice thing to have, but I wouldn't have done it without the other 10 defensive players out there. It's not a one-man show."
Zajac wasn't the only one to be a little surprised when the preseason teams were announced in July.
"Sometimes we're made aware ahead of time but we found out when he found out," head coach Mike Magistrelli said. "For a guy who was just a sophomore going into his junior year after just one year of varsity, that's a tremendous honor. I think it's a reflection of how well he played a year ago."
Just because the honor came as a surprise didn't mean it wasn't deserved as Zajac quickly turned into a lockdown corner in his first season on the field.
He had four interceptions — returning one for a 95-yard touchdown against Trinity International — and added 16 pass breakups. He was tied for second in the nation in passes defended (either broken up or intercepted) per game.
He also finished second on the team with 52 tackles and had a blocked field goal, also against Trinity International.
At 5-foot-8, 165 pounds, Zajac isn't the biggest player at his position, but he feels he makes up for that with his knowledge and understanding of the game. He regularly watches film and studies other cornerbacks in college and the NFL to try and add more to his game.
"I'll always stand by that football is more of a mental game than a physical game," he said. "If I can realize the play before the offense realizes that I know it, then I feel like I already have the advantage. I can already break up on the ball, I can break up on the tackle so just, football I.Q. is one of my strengths and I utilize that every play that I'm out there."
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That's something the coaching staff saw early on in Zajac's freshman season on the scout team.
"You saw the instincts and the ability to break on the ball and close to where if he ever got to the point where he could cover the double move, look out, he was going to be really good," Magistrelli said. "So we'd try and run double moves at him a lot because you knew he was aggressive and really anticipated routes and read routes really well so we'd try to throw double moves at him. You saw as his freshman year went on, he got better and better at that and you knew once he got that down, he'd be in great shape."
All of Zajac's skills were on display during that interception return for a touchdown against Trinity.
"That was just him reading the formation, anticipating the route and jumping it," Magistrelli said. "It was just a great job by him."
Zajac looks to build on that strong sophomore season as the Bees open up their season Saturday against Missouri Baptist. With the recognition comes added expectations, but Zajac isn't fazed by the sudden spotlight.
"I always like playing under the pressure, it's another motivation factor for me," he said. "At the end of the day, it's not going to change how I play. It's a great award, but I'm just here to play football, play with my teammates and just get wins at the end of the day."
With those expectations also comes the possibility of being specifically planned for by opposing teams. It might lead to less production for him, but maybe more success for the Bees.
He's just fine with that.
"I've just got to do my job and make the most of my opportunities," he said. "I've just got to go 100 percent every play. If they want to throw it away from me, go ahead. I've got 10 other great guys to trust. ... We'll go 10 on 10 all day."