By Dustin Dopirak
In his heart, Zach Carpenter wanted to go to Indiana the first time around.
Then a three-star Class of 2019 recruit at Cincinnati’s Archbishop Moeller High School, the 6-foot-5 interior offensive lineman was struck by the sincerity he noticed from Tom Allen and the Hoosiers’ coaching staff. They made him feel wanted without feeling pressured.
That’s the biggest reason why when he decided he wanted to transfer from Michigan at the end of this season, the Hoosiers were one of the first teams he considered. The redshirt freshman started Michigan’s final two games at center before the Wolverines saw each of their last three games cancelled because of COVID-19.
“It’s very unique,” Carpenter said of Indiana. “Usually, during recruiting you hear the same old spiel they give everybody else. You kind of feel like you’re being sold something. There, it wasn’t like they were putting on a show or anything like that. It was just who they are. Just being genuine, that’s what drew me there the most.”
He especially noticed a difference on his recruiting visit. The Hoosiers didn’t try to overwhelm him. They simply made their pitch and tried to get to know him.
“It was more of what they didn’t do,” Carpenter said. “They didn’t pressure you to commit. They didn’t have presentations about how great the program is or sit you down and have to convince you how good their place is. They just showed you what they have and let them do with that what you will. They sat me down and talked and it was, a lot of it wasn’t about football, it was more about your family and getting to know you as a person. That was very unique to any other place that I had gone. It was the most genuine place. And even looking at the players. Looking at them walking around, you can see in their faces that they actually enjoy playing for the program, enjoy playing for the coaches.”
When he was being recruited as a high schooler, however, Carpenter had shinier options. He had 24 scholarship offers with Clemson among them. Ohio State didn’t offer, but Michigan did, and Carpenter said many people around him were pushing him to go to Ann Arbor. He wouldn’t name names, but felt like he ultimately got talked into the idea of a historical power over long-struggling Indiana, which missed a bowl game in his senior season of high school.
“I feel like I made my decision for somebody else,” Carpenter said. “From the outside looking in, I guess, they were just looking at it like, ‘Oh, Michigan, that would be a great degree and it’s high-level football.’ I understand all that and why they would want me to go there. I just didn’t ever feel like that was the place for me. But I went there anyway and said, ‘Oh, I’ll give everybody the benefit of the doubt.’”
But nothing in his time at Michigan made him feel more comfortable, even winning a starting job, His mother’s health ultimately made him decide that he needed to be closer to home regardless.
Carrie Carpenter has lupus, an autoimmune disease that is terrifying in normal times, but even more so in the midst of a global pandemic.
Carrie went to the hospital with blood clots in late July — her son said she was told she could have died an hour later if they hadn’t been discovered when they were — and Zach couldn’t come home because he was battling COVID-19 at the time. The Carpenters were obviously terrified of what could happen if Carrie contracted COVID-19, and their worst fears eventually came to pass. She was diagnosed with the virus around Thanksgiving, right as Michigan was about to play Penn State. She was never hospitalized for the virus, Zach said, but she was close and had to undergo a heavy round of medication to get through it. She still hasn’t fully regained her sense of smell or taste, he said.
“She got real sick,” Carpenter said. “She was lucky she didn’t have to go to the hospital. They didn’t have any beds or else she probably would have had to go to the hospital. That really pushed me to make the decision (to transfer.)”
Carpenter entered his name into the transfer portal on Dec. 10 and was considering Cincinnati, Kentucky and Ohio State. About two weeks later, he was sold on Indiana. Going to Bloomington cut the drive home to Cincinnati from about 4 hours to 2 1/2 and it allowed him to go to the school he’d wanted to go to initially. It made it an easier sell in his mind that the Hoosiers went 6-2 this season and beat Michigan for the first time since 1987.
“Both times I went back to Bloomington it reminded me of the visit,” Carpenter said. “I definitely had a good feeling heading into Bloomington. This last year, even that game, it definitely put them in my mind for where I wanted to go.”
Where Carpenter fits on Indiana’s offensive line isn’t certain at this point, with the NCAA not counting the 2020 season against anyone’s eligibility because of the complications of playing in a pandemic. Carpenter joins the roster as a center and he would be inheriting the starting job from senior Harry Crider in normal times. Crider has played four seasons and is considering the NFL draft, but he has the option of taking a fifth year. Fifth-year seniors Dylan Powell and McKenzie Nworah started at guard this season and also get an extra year of eligibility. Nworah has already announced he will stay.
Still, in Carpenter, the Hoosiers have a 6-5, 329-pounder who can play any of the three interior spots and enjoys getting out on the perimeter to pull. John Rodenberg, now the coach at Indianapolis’ Roncalli High School, coached him at Archbishop Moeller. He put Carpenter on the roster as a ninth grader and made him a captain as a junior.
“He understood the concept of zone blocking before a lot of other players,” Rodenberg said. “With his body control, he just had that ability to get things done. He hopped in the weight room and got after it. He was relentless.”