Zach committed to Stanford in November of his junior year, but there was still the important matter of getting into one of the nation’s toughest academic institutions. It required Zach to work harder at his studies during his senior year than he ever had before to hold down a 3.5 GPA while balancing AP classes, football and basketball. To this day, Zach looks back on his senior year at Monte Vista and the hard work he put in to earn acceptance to Stanford as an important moment in his life.
“I think it was my first true test in time management and to realize what’s important in life,” he said. “As a senior in high school a lot of kids just want to go out and have fun. I had to focus on what really mattered, which was getting good grades and getting to Stanford, as well as being very good in athletics. I think that kind of set me up for success at Stanford as well.”
Zach spent his first year at Stanford redshirting on the football team. In truth, he was still relatively new to the game, and the extra time allowed Zach to get to know college football better. It also gave him a chance to get his academic career off on the right note.
On the recommendation of teammate Toby Gerhart, Zach took some classes in management science and engineering — known elsewhere as industrial engineering. He went on to pick management science and engineering as a major. It was another test. He could have opted for an easy major and focused more on football. But that wasn’t what Zach wanted out of his college experience.
“I didn’t want to cheat myself off the field. Obviously, I was giving so much of my time and energy into football, but at the same time I was going to this prestigious university. I didn’t want to just coast by, and get a degree that I wouldn’t be proud of looking back.”
In his sophomore year, Zach finally got a chance to excel on the gridiron. In Stanford’s first game of the 2010 season, No. 86 hauled in two passes, one of them for a red zone touchdown in the Cardinal’s 52-17 win over Sacramento State.
“When the coaches trusted me to go in there and catch a touchdown pass, that’s when I knew I could be a successful player at the college level,” Zach said of his first college score.
Zach was lightly used by Stanford during his sophomore season, playing behind quarterback Andrew Luck’s favorite target, tight end Coby Fleener. But when he did get opportunities, Zach made the most of them. Of his 16 receptions as a sophomore, five of them went for touchdowns, including an early score in Stanford’s 40-12 Orange Bowl win over Virginia Tech.
Zach also built a strong bond with coach Jim Harbaugh. Harbaugh transformed the Stanford football into a winning program, and had enticed Zach to join the movement.
“He and I still have a great relationship today,” Zach said. “He was very enthusiastic and he brought an enthusiasm to Stanford that they never had and a toughness to Stanford that they never had. He said to give him some time and we’ll turn this program around together and that’s exactly what we did.”
The Orange Bowl victory and the return of most of the team set Stanford up to be the Pac-12 favorite in 2011, and a national championship contender. But Harbaugh, who had built the program from perennial disappointment back into a powerhouse in just four short years, would no longer be along for the ride. Harbaugh was hired to coach the San Francisco 49ers, and David Shaw, the man who had the biggest hand in Zach’s recruitment, became Stanford’s head coach.
“After Coach Harbaugh left, we knew there was no better candidate to lead the program than Coach Shaw,” Zach recalls. “We knew there wasn’t going to be a downturn in any way.”
Indeed while many outside expected the Cardinal to fall off after Harbaugh’s departure, they continued to rise. Stanford opened Zach’s junior season with nine straight victories, and Zach was an integral part of their success, scoring touchdowns in each of the first three games of 2011.
Unfortunately, Zach’s junior campaign was setback by a knee injury suffered in a Oct. 29 thriller against rival USC.
“We were playing very well as a team, undefeated at the time, and it was tough knowing I was going to miss four or five games with a knee injury—something I couldn’t control,” Zach recalled.
With Zach sidelined, No. 3 Stanford’s hopes for an undefeated season were derailed by a loss to No. 6 Oregon on November 12.
Zach returned briefly in the regular season finale, a win over Notre Dame, but didn’t get much chance to make an impact. He was ready for their team’s bowl game just over a month later, however, a Fiesta Bowl date with Oklahoma State. Stanford lost a shootout with the Cowboys, but No. 86 put together another a strong finish to a season with four catches and a touchdown.
They were the last balls he would catch from Luck, who became the No. 1 overall selection in the 2012 NFL Draft. Still, playing two seasons with Luck as his team’s quarterback was an invaluable experience. Zach credits the signal caller with aiding his rapid growth as a tight end.
“When I was getting recruited, the coaches were always saying, ‘If you come here, you’re going to have someone very special throwing you the ball,’” he recalled. “I didn’t know how good he was at the time, but looking back, I’m so glad I went to Stanford because I was able to play with a great quarterback like him.”