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Zach Charbonnet’s smashing UCLA debut sends a reminder: Tackle him at your own peril

UCLA running back Zach Charbonnet breaks free for a touchdown.
UCLA running back Zach Charbonnet breaks free for a touchdown run against Hawaii on Aug. 28 at the Rose Bowl.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

The back brace sits in a garage, a souvenir from the collision involving the sturdy running back who tramples defenders and teams, hearts and dreams.

It belongs to the former safety whose high school career nearly ended when he went to tackle Zach Charbonnet several years before Charbonnet would come to be known as the Terminator at UCLA.

“I tried to hit him and just,” Nathan Smidt II remembered with a laugh, “you can’t stop that kid.”

Video footage of the play shows Smidt lowering his head into Charbonnet just as the running back who then starred for Oaks Christian High in Westlake Village dipped his shoulder, bowling over the defender from Bakersfield Christian. The jolt broke three of Smidt’s thoracic vertebrae and left him in a neck-to-waist brace for about four months before he made a full recovery.

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Fortunately, the carnage that the 6-foot-1, 220-pound Charbonnet inflicts isn’t always literal. He smashed Big Ten Conference defenses for two seasons at Michigan before transferring to UCLA and leaving a slew of defenders in his wake last weekend in his Bruins debut against Hawaii.

UCLA beat Hawaii 44-10 for its first nonconference victory and first win in a season opener under coach Chip Kelly, and everything felt different.

Charbonnet ran as if a free trip to Hawaii was at stake, scoring touchdowns on his third, fourth and sixth touches. The burst of productivity provided UCLA with a 28-point lead early in the second quarter of a 44-10 romp and gave the hard-charging junior who blends speed and power like some sort of human Vitamix the rest of the day off.

His 106 yards rushing, including a 47-yard touchdown in which he broke five tackles, sparked a spontaneous Heisman Trophy campaign earlier this week from teammate Bo Calvert, who played alongside Charbonnet at Oaks Christian.

“So, pretty much, Zach Charbonnet for Heisman, is what I’m saying,” Calvert concluded after delivering nearly two minutes of compliments about his teammate’s unique mix of talent and humility.

Anyone who has met Charbonnet knows the only thing harder than tackling him is getting him to praise himself. He disdains social media, last tweeting in May, and sounded like he’d rather discuss Victorian fashion when a reporter mentioned the Heisman hype heading into the Bruins’ showdown against No. 16 Louisiana State on Saturday at the Rose Bowl.

UCLA is hoping to build on a rout of Hawaii in the season opener when it hosts LSU on Saturday at the Rose Bowl. Follow along for the latest news.

“Right now I’m just looking forward to the next week, the next game ahead of me,” Charbonnet said when asked about the buzz he was generating. “That’s all I’m ever going to have in mind is how I can help the team as best I can.”

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Charbonnet’s surname (pronounced SHAR-buh-nay) reflects his father of Creole descent. His quiet resolve mostly comes from Seda Hall, his half-Asian mother who is part Cambodian and part Chinese, valuing manners and respect.

“That’s very important to me and I explained it to my children,” said Hall, who emigrated from France to the United States when she was 16. “It’s kind of the same basic things, you know, treat others how you want to be treated, don’t say negative things if there’s nothing nice to say, just things like that that people are forgetting and it’s becoming more of a me-me-me culture now.”

Football fans should be grateful that Charbonnet once prioritized his own interests. Inspired by an older cousin who showed promise at running back, he asked his mother if he could play the sport. Skittish about injuries, she said he could once he reached the seventh grade, hoping he would forget about the endeavor.

He didn’t, and asked about playing for the Camarillo Roadrunners youth program.

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“Mom, registration’s open,” Charbonnet started.

Zach Charbonnet with Oaks Christian in 2018
(Eric Sondheimer / Los Angeles Times)

“What registration?” Hall responded.

“Football.”

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“Argh, no.”

Hall relented, fulfilling her promise. She eventually came to embrace the sport after realizing how happy it made her son and how much effort he was willing to put in while working out in the family garage, the hills around Westlake Village and the sand in Malibu. He trumpeted his arrival as a top prospect by scoring touchdowns in his first couple of runs as an eighth-grader in a scrimmage against a team featuring Mycah Pittman, the eventual Oregon receiver who had just walloped one of Charbonnet’s teammates.

“I walked over to Seda on the sidelines with my sunglasses on and a little tear rolled out of my eye,” recalled Ben Hall, Charbonnet’s stepfather. “I said, ‘Yep, we’ve got a football player.’”

Charbonnet became one of the nation’s most coveted high school running backs, picking Michigan over UCLA and other schools on the West Coast.

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“I would say they recruited me pretty hard in high school,” Charbonnet said of the Bruins. “That was just not the decision I ended up going with.”

Michigan running back Zach Charbonnet carries the ball during a game against Indiana on Nov. 23, 2019, in Bloomington, Ind.
(Darron Cummings / Associated Press)

Hall and Charlie Collins, Charbonnet’s coach at Oaks Christian, said the Wolverines were more dogged in their pursuit.

“You know, if you’ve got three or four guys trying to date the same girl,” Collins said, “it’s going to boil down to who is basically pouring the most energy into it and I think they just put a lot more energy into the recruiting process and made him feel wanted.”

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The victors hailed Charbonnet’s arrival, making him a starter in his first game at Michigan. He went on to run for 11 touchdowns in 2019, a school record for a freshman, before the pandemic and an increasingly crowded backfield made him long to play closer to home following a far less productive sophomore season.

Once Charbonnet hit the transfer portal, the Bruins pounced, granted a reprieve.

“We swung and missed the first time,” UCLA coach Chip Kelly said, “and we hit the second time.”

UCLA running back Zach Charbonnet celebrates after scoring a touchdown against Hawaii.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
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Bruins running backs coach DeShaun Foster took a verbal victory lap when he spoke with reporters during fall training camp, openly thanking Michigan for Charbonnet’s homecoming. The newcomer combined with graduate transfer Brittain Brown for 184 yards rushing and four touchdowns against Hawaii, wowing a new batch of fans in addition to his longtime admirers.

Smidt harbors no hard feelings about the hit that nearly ended his career, noting that Charbonnet added him on Snapchat afterward to check in on his recovery. He returned to the football field for his senior year of high school and now attends Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, having long shed the back brace that serves as a reminder of his perseverance.

The hope is that Charbonnet goes on to a lengthy professional football career, giving Smidt an even better story to tell.

“A lot of my coaches keep up with him,” Smidt said of Charbonnet, “and they’re like, ‘Oh, dude, you got hit by a future NFL draft pick.’”


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