It was back in June when Chester football coach Victor Floyd and a reporter stood in sweltering heat at the Cyclones’ stadium. Floyd pointed at his freshman quarterback and said, “now that one there is different.”
That one there? That’s the freshman? The 6-foot-2, 210-pound hulk (imposing even without pads) slinging the football around the field during this 7-on-7?
Yes. That one.
That was Zan Dunham, a huge reason why six months later the Cyclones are 14-0 and playing for the 3A state championship Friday at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia.
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“He’s stepped up when we’ve had to have it,” said Floyd. “He’s had his freshman moments, don’t get me wrong. But he’s made so many plays that made a difference that it overshadows.”
The first thing anyone notices about Dunham is his size and while that’s probably unfair and may never change, it’s because he has the build that a college freshman football player would love. Dunham’s physique is partly why his teammates immediately respected him, his presence in the huddle, his big arm and his willingness in using that God-given girth in the trenches.
“He’s not gonna do any finesse moves,” said senior offensive lineman Keith Boyd. “He’s just gonna try to run over you.”
Floyd said recently that Dunham was the X-factor, the standout addition that unexpectedly put his team over the top. Some of the Chester players knew Dunham, but few would have thought last spring when he first showed up at the high school that he would become the signal caller for an undefeated Cyclones team.
Dunham lived down the street from senior receiver/defensive back Zion Mills and the pair used to talk about what it might be like if they played on the same team in high school.
“I didn’t see him for a while and then I saw him when he was in ninth grade and how big he was,” said Mills. “I knew we were gonna have something special.”
Floyd agrees. Dunham only began lifting weights in the summer, a habit that will positively impact his body in the coming years. He’s got a 3.5 GPA and, despite what’s probably an introverted personality (at least publicly), shows no difficulty leading his teammates.
“You can project and see that he has such a bright future, and the thing about it, he’s a worker on top of it.,” said Floyd. “He doesn’t mind working, so you know he’s gonna get better. If he was a lazy kid with ability, you don’t know where the cap would be. Because he’s motivated and has some work ethic, sky’s the limit.”
Even just this season there has been immense progress. Floyd praised Dunham’s humility, and given that he’s been the biggest kid in his class for a while, he has some natural leadership leanings.
“He’s kind of taking more charge than the first week, compared to last week,” said Boyd. “He tries to hold us accountable, which is a good thing. As a leader you have to hold people accountable.”
Even as a 14-year old. It’s helped Dunham that Chester has a strong senior class, full of positive leaders, like Boyd, who take the heat off their young QB within the group.
“We have to understand that he’s doing what he sees us doing,” said Boyd.
Dunham has rushed for 1,000 yards on the dot in 14 games, and thrown for over 600. He’s tossed seven touchdown passes and nine interceptions, including a pick on a screen pass last week against Union County that brought out one of those patented Victor Floyd death stares.
But he also helped win at least one game this season with his arm, the Cyclones’ then-surprise victory over Rock Hill back in August.
Bearcats coach Bubba Pittman said his defense was set up to stop Chester’s vaunted rushing attack. That left Bearcat defensive backs in a number of one-on-one situations, with no safety help behind them. Dunham completed 11-of-19 passes, and accounted for both of the fourth quarter TDs that sealed the win for the Cyclones. The second of those was a 25-yard TD toss to Ja’Rel Hill in one of those one-on-one situations.
“He made some big throws in some big moments,” said Pittman. “Real impressed with his ability to read defenses.”
Dunham can improve hugely as a passer. He’s already a dominant runner with the football, a high percentage option in short yardage situations that finishes runs with exclamation points, not periods or question marks.
“He brought toughness to the team, him being a freshman and not being scared to run the ball,” said senior running back Pha’Leak Brown. “Most quarterbacks don’t like contact, but he embraced the contact. He ain’t scared to hit.”
“Breaking tackles. Fourth-and 1, when his number’s called…” Mills shook his head. “We know we’ve got it. He believes in us and we believe in him and he carries us on his back.”
Dunham is the perfect quarterback for a team that prides itself on physical play, on being tougher and more tolerant of pain than the opponent.
“It just helps me knowing I have a quarterback that’s gonna try to get everything he can, and sacrifice himself for the team,” said Boyd.
The seniors gush about their freshman teammate. And this is the greatest sign of their respect for Dunham: they actually hang out with him socially in public, Mills saying that Dunham joins him and the other 12th graders at Pizza Hut sometimes. On and off the field, Chester’s QB outperforms his years.