Chandler Zavala: Path To The NFL Draft

By Simon Carroll

In previous years, plying your college football trade outside of the FBS would usually mean a tougher road to the NFL. Dominating at the FCS level would often be attributed to going up against perceived ‘weaker opposition’, and attracting the attention of pro scouts was no easy task.

But nowadays, that dynamic is changing. Not only are talent evaluators learning to respect small school prospects, but with relaxed transfer rules student athletes can make the jump to a ‘bigger’ program to show they can handle the step up.

That’s exactly the route that Chandler Zavala took in his collegiate career – and despite some pretty big obstacles thrown his way, has proven he can compete with the best. The former NC State offensive lineman sat down with Simon Carroll to talk about his path to the NFL Draft:

Sleeper, or Sweeper?

Chandler with his father Demetrio

Even across an internet connection, Chandler Zavala cuts an imposing figure. 6’3” and 322lbs with a wingspan north of 80”, it seems like he was born to be an NFL lineman. But interestingly enough, Zavala didn’t find football until later on in his young life. Growing up in Boynton Beach Florida, it was other sports that were the focus:

“I wasn’t particularly exposed to football as a kid. I’m close with both my parents and I have two siblings – a sister and a brother who has a different dad. We were all fond of sports, but I was all about basketball and soccer, and only really picked up football as a senior at high school.”

As a keen soccer fan myself, I learn that Zavala played sweeper on the pitch – a position that is seldom seen nowadays. It takes the limits of my imagination to picture this giant of a man covering every blade of grass sideline to sideline like Franz Beckenbauer or Franco Baresi at their pomp. But of course Chandler wasn’t always this size:

“I left Forest Park High School at about 260lbs. Big for a sweeper, but a little undersized for an offensive lineman! And obviously, that impacted my recruitment quite a bit. I had some preferred walk-on offers from Wake Forest and a couple of others. But I only actually had one scholarship offer. Fairmont State offered me a full ride, and so that’s where I went.”

Bulking Up

With just twelve months of football under his belt, it was a testament to Chandler Zavala’s natural aptitude for the sport that he got any interest at all. Some kids play the sport from six years old and don’t get the chance of a college career. But Zavala could move and had size, and wasn’t finished growing yet. Attacking a weight plan with zeal, the young offensive lineman packed on an incredible sixty pounds in his first twelve months on campus.

“Oh man! I just love good food – it’s something I got from my father growing up, a real passion for good cooking. And eating to be better at football was a dream! My go-to meal would be rib eye steak; i’d eat that at least two, three times a week”.

More on the family penchant for quality cuisine later. Despite travelling fifteen hours north to play football, Zavala found himself right at home in Fairmont, West Virginia. Even as he honed his body as a freshman he managed to see gametime three times. But 2018 was the year that Chandler really put himself on the map, starting all eleven games for the Falcons. With his new body, Zavala earned countless accolades for his performances, including first team All-MEAC, All-Super Region, and Honorable Mention All-American – the first in school history since 1994:

“That was all down to the work I put in off the field. The diet, living in the weight room, and all the hours spent with my girlfriend Samantha doing the extra work. I just dedicated myself to having my body in the best shape it could be, to allow me to be the best player I could be.”

Chandler with girlfriend Samantha

The Next Step

The dedication paid off and then some for Chandler Zavala, who doubled down on his sophomore season with another year of dominance at Fairmont State. He starts all ten games in 2019, again at left guard, as the Falcons produce an offense that ranks in the top twenty in the nation – both in total offense and scoring offense. Unfortunately for Zavala, Fairmont State’s 2020 season is a washout as COVID grips the planet. But no football allowed Chandler to focus on his studies, and make a decision that helped him to take the next step in his football career:

“My junior year, there being no football, it was frustrating. But I had shown I could play at the FCS level. And I was able to finish my degree in Exercise Science too, which I was very proud of. At this stage I kind of was at a crossroads, and with a year left of eligibility I wanted to test myself at a higher level – see how good I could be. So I threw my name in the transfer portal.”

With a lot more experience and good tape to lean on, Zavala enjoyed some options that he didn’t have four years earlier. But it turns out it was a pretty simple decision, as he chose to continue his football education at NC State:

“My mother had just moved to Raleigh, North Carolina, and the offensive line coach there – Coach Garrison – he called me almost every single day. COVID was still going on, and it meant I couldn’t really go places and take visits, so the relationships I made with people proved most important. I decided to head south and become a Wildcat.”

2021: A Year To Forget

Based on 2021 alone, Chandler Zavala could be excused for thinking the decision to move to Raleigh was cursed. It started off so well too; Zavala became an immediate starter, and in only his third game as a Wildcat recorded ELEVEN pancake blocks against Furman. Through the first five games of the year NC State are 4-1, with a big win against Clemson. But Chandler injures his back against Louisiana Tech and requires surgery, ending his season before it had barely begun. And as the year ended, even more adversity was to befall Zavala, as his father endured a serious health scare:
“My dad was dead on the table for ten minutes. The day before we left for the bowl game (Holiday Bowl against UCLA), I got a call that my father had been rushed to hospital. An ulcer had burst in his stomach, and they had to take some of his small intestine away. But they did something to his colon and he lost like 45lbs during surgery. Even afterwards he had to wear a colostomy bag for like four months. But I’m just happy he survived – because for a minute it looked like he wouldn’t”

Amidst the injury and personal trauma, Zavala was also fighting the fight on another front; with the dreaded NCAA. In terms of hardship, 2021 couldn’t have fit the bill any more. And yet, when it came to applying for a hardship waiver to allow him another year of college eligibility, the powers that be declined Chandler – not once, but twice.

“Yeah, they gave me two no’s before I got a yes. It was a real rough time. I’m so grateful to my family, my teammates, and my girlfriend, who had moved with me to Raleigh. The coaches worked hard with our legal counsel to make the case for me – everyone here really believed I deserved another year of football. And I was just so thankful to everyone when the NCAA finally came through and allowed me to play again.”

Putting It All Togther

For some, understanding why Chandler Zavala was so desperate to return to school may be confusing. After all, he had his degree from Fairmont State, and by this point had also earned a Masters in Health Professionals from NC State. His collegiate career had given him an education, and allowed him to meet the person he would spend the rest of his life with. But Zavala knew he could play professional football. He just needed one last opportunity to show it:

“After my freshman year, playing those three games and dominating them, I just had a talk with myself that Summer. I was like ‘yeah, I could do this for real!’ It started off well at NC State, but it wasn’t enough. I needed one full season to put on tape what I was capable of.”

Grabbing that NCAA lifeline with both hands, Zavala went to work showing the college football world what he could do. All those flashes of promise finally came together as he played 747 snaps at left guard, recording 31 pancakes and surrendering just half a sack. A big man with a big smile, it took some time for the naturally quiet Zavala to warm to the interview, but there is no doubting his pride at how his college career ended, being named All-ACC.

“It wasn’t a long journey, but it was an arduous one. COVID was tough. Then there was the injury. My dad getting sick, and having to fight the NCAA – it’s just nice to know it was all worth it. And I gotta give credit to those around me for coming through that adversity. Coach D (Dave Doeren) called me every day. My family had my back, and my girlfriend was amazing. And then the coaches that helped hone my game; Coach ‘Thunder’ (Dantonio Burnette – strength and conditioning coach) developing my body even more. Coach Garrison for bringing me to State and refining my technique. And then my teammates Bryson Speas, Grant Gibson and Derrick Eason for going to war with me. Without all those people, I wouldn’t be here today.”

Size AND Speed

Credit: Twitter (@__BCos5)

Chandler Zavala has had one eye on the NFL for the past five years. So it was particularly pleasing for him that his career year at NC State saw him invited to the East-West Shrine Bowl – one of the most prestigious showcase games of the pre-draft process.

“I spoke to a lot of teams – I was described as a ‘mauler’ before the event, so I wanted to show them all my athleticism that goes with my size. But it was a privilege to be around all the other players in this process and learn from them. And working with NFL coaches was pretty special. I worked primarily with Falcons Assistant O-Line Coach Mario Jeberaeel, and we were supervised by (O-Line coach) Dwayne Ledford too. It was great to get tips from the best out there.”

With a big focus on positional versatility on the interior of the offensive line, I ask Zavala about where they used him in Las Vegas:

“I pretty much spent my entire career at left guard. At the Shrine Game, they put me on the left and the right. Honestly, it was no problem. The same principles, just mirrored. I had no issue with it. And I’ve got experience in the pivot too – I spent a whole spring semester at Fairmont snapping the ball. A quick refresher and I’ll show everyone I can do that on March 28th.”

"I'm Not A Vocal Leader. My Actions Speak Louder Than Words"

March 28th is important; it’s NC State’s pro day. Working out at Velocity Football Academy in Georgia (the same place Cole Strange trained last year), Zavala is prepping himself for his final chance to shine in front of the NFL scouts. He reiterates his determination to demonstrate his athleticism:

“I want to show them I can move, and at my true size too. A lot of o-line prospects, between now and their pro days, they’ll be slimming down to improve their speed. But they’re false numbers; I have that short area quickness at this size. I’ll show them I can operate in a wide zone scheme, power, gap – you name it, I can do it. I’m used to pulling at State – people see the size and think I’m a statue. But in reality, I’m pretty quick.”

Something Zavala is also keen to stress is the leadership traits he’s been able to develop and demonstrate since arriving at Raleigh. Unsurprisingly, he’s not the overt, ‘rah-rah’ motivator like some…

“I’m not a vocal leader. My actions speak louder than words. So I was a perfect fit in the culture at NC State – where you go to work for one another. It’s like one big family. I just liked to lead by example – and Coach Doeren would always thank me for making his job easier, which I appreciated.”

Draft Weekend

Chandler Zavala is a man who knows the value of things in life. His family and girlfriend have been by his side on every step of his football journey, and he’ll be spending draft weekend in their company, ready to celebrate a moment that they’re all a part of. I jokingly ask if his dad will be cooking – lost somewhere on this journey was that Chandler’s father is a two-time winner of ‘Chopped’, America’s version of the TV show Masterchef. Zavala smiles and tells me he gets his work ethic from his father, who has been in kitchens since he was thirteen years old. But Demetrio Zavala will be present when his son learns his destiny, something that was far from guaranteed that Christmas back in 2021.

Some prospects tell you they have loved football since they were able to walk, or they ‘were born with a ball in their hand’. Classic football cliches no doubt, regardless as to the veracity of the statements. But that’s not the storyline for Chandler Zavala, a man who first put on pads just seven years ago. Nevertheless, the dream of playing on Sundays is as strong as any draft prospect I’ve come across.

“If I hear my name called, man, it would mean the world. I can help my dad with his medical bills. Give my mom a break from working two jobs. Look after my extended family for life. But it’s more than that. I want to be known as one of the greatest to play the game. So wherever it is I go, I’m just gonna keep working and do what I do best.”

The diet for an NFL career is rib eye steak, hard work, and a refusal to give up on your dreams. Chandler Zavala is made of all three.

Mock Draft





A huge thank you to Chandler for taking the time to talk to us. Everyone at The Touchown wishes him well in his future career.