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NC State football’s offensive depth is buoyed by a converted basketball player

N.C. State offensive lineman Chandler Zavala (64) participates in drills during the Wolfpack’s first practice in Raleigh, N.C., Wednesday, August 4, 2021.

N.C. State offensive lineman Chandler Zavala (64) participates in drills during the Wolfpack’s first practice in Raleigh, N.C., Wednesday, August 4, 2021.

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In an 8-part series, the News & Observer and Herald Sun will be examining NC State’s football depth chart position by position as the season opener on Sept. 2 at Carter-Finley Stadium draws near.

Meet Chandler Zavala.

He’s the massive (6-5, 325) transfer guard expected to fill a starting role on the N.C. State offensive line this season.

Zavala is an interesting addition to the Wolfpack program. He was a Division II All-American at Fairmont State. His dad, Demetrio, is a celebrity chef, winner of “Chopped” on the Food Network and restaurant owner.

The younger Zavala, yeah, the new guy expected to be a key blocker for All-ACC back Zonovan Knight and protect Devin Leary, is relatively new to football. Zavala only played one season of prep football. Basketball and soccer were his first loves. When the Wolfpack open the season on Sept. 2 versus South Florida, the biggest guy on the line will be the one who has played the least amount of football.

That’s probably how Zavala ended up at Fairmont State, located in West Virginia. He wasn’t overlooked or under-recruited. He was new to the game and signed with a team that took a risk on him.

“Fairmont took a chance on me when they didn’t have to,” Zavala said in a conversation with the media recently. “I played freshman year there, sophomore and junior year I got better and better.”

Zavala was a star on the hardwood at Forest Park High School in Boynton Beach, Fla. Before his senior year he lost both his grandparents, who were big football fans. To honor them, he gave football a try. He showed enough that DII Fairmont came calling. Zavala, with help from his chef father, put on 60 pounds before enrolling at Fairmont. He played in three games as a freshman, then really blossomed, stating that he found a love for the game as a sophomore and junior.

He started 21 games the next two seasons, as the Falcons finished in the top 25 in total offense both years. COVID-19 caused Fairmont to cancel its season in 2020, so it’s been a while since Zavala has seen any live action. Since enrolling at N.C. State, he immediately became part of the brotherhood of the offensive line, bonding with center Grant Gibson, tackle Ikem Ekwonu and guard Dylan McMahon. Of course, coming from the Division II level, there were some growing pains making that jump.

“The biggest adjustment was the size and the speed,” Zavala said. “At the Division II level there is some competition and a lot of people can play, but when you come to the Division I level everybody across the board can play. That was a big factor.”

Zavala transferred because he wanted to be closer to his family (his mom lives in Raleigh) and he wanted to get his masters, but he also wanted to play against top competition. Since enrolling, Zavala said he’s learned so much, technique wise, from offensive line coach John Garrison and feels he has so much room to grow in his one season on the team.

Zavala will line up along a veteran group. Gibson has started 24 straight games and Ekwonu recorded a team-high 50 pancake blocks a year ago. He started every game a year ago, flopping between guard and tackle. He’s penciled in as the starting left tackle in 2021. McMahon started the final seven games of the year and has proved himself a weight room warrior, earning a spot on Bruce Feldman of The Athletic “Freaks” list. Ekwonu was also on the list.

“He’s capable of doing anything,” Bryson Speas, who’s slated to start at right tackle, said about McMahon. “When you look at the weight room numbers and what he’s capable of, you’ll see why he can do what he does on the field.”

McMahon will hold down the fort at right guard, and the other side will more than likely be Zavala, who started watching film with the rest of the line over the summer, getting a feel for the system. One thing he hasn’t adjusted to yet – North Carolina temperatures during fall camp.

“In Fairmont the hottest it will get is maybe 80,” Zavala said. “Here in North Carolina, this is straight humid.”

Projected NC State offensive line depth chart

STARTERS

HEIGHT

WEIGHT

Ikem Ekwonu (LT)

6-4

320

Dylan McMahon (LG)

6-4

300

Grant Gibson (C)

6-1

305

Chandler Zavala (RG)

6-5

325

Bryson Speas (RT)

6-3

310

RESERVES

Tyrone Riley

6-6

305

Derrick Eason

6-4

309

Anthony Belton

6-6

335

Timothy McKay

6-4

300

Ethan Lane

6-3

290

Previous NC State preview installments

Running backs

Defensive line

Linebackers

Defensive backs

Wide receivers

Special teams

Other Triangle ACC previews

Offensive line

Running back

Defensive line

Linebackers

Defensive backs

Special teams

Wide receivers

Sports reporter Jonas Pope IV has covered college recruiting, high school sports, NC Central, NC State and the ACC for The Herald-Sun and The News & Observer.

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