Zalk, a Prairie grad, led the Wildcats in receptions last year as a redshirt freshman. After a shoulder injury limited Zalk early this season, he has 22 catches for 244 yards and four touchdowns over the past three games. He also returns kickoffs and has averaged 31.6 yards per return this season.
With just five seniors on the roster, first-year coach Ian Shoemaker needed young players to step into leadership roles. Zalk and Haynes haven’t disappointed.
“There’s no doubt those guys are mentally capable of taking on that role,” Shoemaker said in a phone interview from Ellensburg.
With his speed and physicality, Haynes made an instant impression on the new coach during spring practice. He was so well-suited to play middle linebacker that Shoemaker moved returning all-conference senior JB Torsy to outside linebacker.
“Playing in the middle allows me to use my speed and move sideline to sideline,” Haynes said. “It’s a lot of fun. There’s not as much gap responsibility in that position.”
Shoemaker said his defense relies on having a player in the middle who can fly to the ball in pass coverage or attack a running back.
“Our system is set up for him to sit deeper,” Shoemaker said. “He’ll be seven yards behind the line instead of four. We want him to stay as clean as he can in order to move to the ball.”
Though Zalk plays offense, Shoemaker’s philosophy with him is similar to Haynes — give him space and let him go.
During Central Washington’s practices, it sometimes feels like a north county rivalry game when the offense and defense square off.
“Sometimes there will be a play and we’ll give each other a look,” Zalk said. “It’s great to go against guys like him in practice. It makes us better.”
Shoemaker sees his team strengthened by recruiting players that played with or against each other in high school.
The Wildcats have only six players on their roster not from Washington. Shoemaker said Clark County is an area he is recruiting heavily.