Nolan Ziegler didn’t know if his junior season would ever resume.
The Notre Dame linebacker commit was left with uncertainty when Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced on Nov. 15 a three-week shutdown of high school sports in the state. Then right before the order was set to expire, Witmer extended the shutdown for 12 more days.
Ziegler and his teammates at Grand Rapids Catholic Central couldn’t wait to learn their fate, so they arranged practices of their own.
“A lot of kids were losing hope about having a season,” Ziegler said. “I just had to remind them that this thing wasn’t over yet, because kids were thinking it was going to end and didn’t want to keep working. Between me and some of the seniors, we were able to keep the guys’ head straight and keep working.”
Four days a week, the players gathered to run through plays in the sun or snow with the hope of continuing their undefeated season.
“We just had to have fun together, because we knew no matter what we had to make the best of the situation,” Ziegler said. “We can’t control anything that’s set upon us. We just had to keep practicing and keep working.”
The preparation paid off. The Michigan High School Athletic Association allowed organized practice to resume in late December with the state tournament rescheduled to finish in January. Grand Rapids Catholic Central then completed the season with three more wins to capture the Division 5 state championship.
The Cougars (12-0) won their fourth state championship in five years with a 48-21 win over previously unbeaten Frankenmuth on Saturday. Ziegler recorded seven tackles and caught touchdown passes of 12 and 35 yards in the victory.
“It’s special always winning a state championship, but I definitely think this year is different with this team because of how long we played,” Ziegler said. “With the circumstances we had to play through and how long and hard we fought to have this season, it’s definitely really special to me and all my teammates.”
In his disrupted season, the 6-foot-4, 205-pound Ziegler showed more signs of why former Irish defensive coordinator Clark Lea pursued him in the first place. Ziegler, who committed to Notre Dame in August, finished the season with 115 tackles, six forced fumbles and one interception. He played strong safety while frequently lining up near the line of scrimmage in a role not too dissimilar to the rover position employed by Lea.
Ziegler learned that new defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman projects him similarly in recent conversations with his new future coach.
“He’s a really cool dude,” Ziegler said. “I think we’re going to get along really well.”
Allen Trieu, a Midwest recruiting analyst for 247Sports, started to get a clearer picture of Ziegler’s future in the past several months too. Before Ziegler’s junior season, 247Sports slated him as a three-star recruit and the No. 21 safety in the 2022 class. Ziegler has since been elevated to a four-star prospect and the No. 17 safety.
“When he was a sophomore, we were a little bit unsure of how his body was going to grow and exactly what he was going to be,” Trieu said. “He was on the radar as a safety but played in the box a lot. He was about 175 pounds at the time. Then he starts showing up at camps and events and he’s weighing closer to 200 pounds and still running well at that size.
“So for us it was just a matter of seeing now that he’s really looking the part, how does that translate onto the field?”
Ziegler showed he can cover plenty of ground. In a 42-28 victory over Cedar Springs in October, he tallied 25 tackles.
“He’s always been really physical,” Trieu said, “but you combine that physicality and that enjoyment of hitting with a kid who was 25 pounds heavier and a lot stronger, we got a better glimpse of what he’s going to be like in college, which is a hybrid guy who can play in the box and definitely help in the run game but still very much athletic enough to cover when he needs to.”
Ziegler said his biggest improvements this past season came in reading his keys and covering receivers.
“Being inside and reading as a linebacker and being able to cover, I’ve definitely gotten better with that because of all the time we spent going against each other in seven-on-seven and one-on-ones when the season wasn’t going on,” Ziegler said.
Ziegler also played a bit at wide receiver for the Cougars. The offense didn’t need to throw it his way often, but he made his catches count. All four of his receptions, which totaled 150 yards, ended in touchdowns. Ziegler’s performance at wide receiver was another encouraging sign for Trieu.
“For us with the hybrid guys and anybody who’s going to be an off-ball linebacker, we’ve found over the years that a lot of the ones that are successful do play both ways in high school,” Trieu said. “That was a missing piece of it. Even though he’s probably not going to play receiver in college and that’s not mainly what he’s known for, it was good to see him be able to do that and do it well because it does speak to his skill set.”
Ziegler has some work to do to convince others in the recruiting industry of his potential. Rivals rates Ziegler as a three-star recruit and the No. 30 athlete, a designation for a prospect with an unclear position projection.
But that opinion won’t impact Ziegler. He’s committed to the school he’s been cheering for since early childhood. He can’t wait to get back to South Bend to attend a game. Despite the NCAA enacting a dead period due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which prevents him from interacting with Notre Dame’s staff in person, Ziegler made a trip to Notre Dame the weekend of its home victory over then-No. 1 Clemson.
It was a reminder of what he hopes to do at Notre Dame in the middle of his own successful season.
“It was still a special place even if there’s not a lot of people there,” Ziegler said. “You still get the nerves and the excitement knowing that you’re going to be playing there. It’s a beautiful campus, stadium and school.”