For Delran High School football coach Garrett Lucas, there’s never been any doubt as to how effective a running back Zach Palmer-Smith could be for the Bears. It was just a matter of the senior getting the bulk of carries while healthy.
“We always knew he had high capability, but unfortunately it was just one of those situations where you kind of just have to wait for him to get the right opportunity,” said Lucas, currently in his fourth year as head coach for Delran.
Two years ago as a sophomore, Palmer-Smith worked behind two senior running backs, Eren Ibas and University of Michigan commit RJ Moten, who between the pair wrapped up more than 70 percent of the team’s carries during the 2019-2020 season.
Last year, the then junior took control of the starting job in the backfield in a COVID-shortened season, amassing 828 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns in only four games, en route to a 3-1 record for Delran. And while the aforementioned statistics point to a strong running back, both Palmer-Smith and his coach agree they wanted more after only four games.
“It’s sad to say that last year went by quickly, but it was still fun and I just tried to make the best out of it that I could,” Palmer-Smith said.
Now, after not starting the 2021 season off on the right foot — Palmer-Smith and his coach both say he played through two sprained ankles — it’s safe to say the senior is healthy and proving his coach’s right after breaking the program record for rushing yards in a single game in back-to-back contests.
“I think everyone is finally getting to see who Zach is as a running back,” Lucas said. “He’s as strong as they come and fierce as a competitor as ever … His burst out of the cut is unreal, with how he’s able to put his foot in the ground and accelerate, is something special.”
After a 3-2 start to the season for Delran, Palmer-Smith has once again started to dominate the stat sheet, rushing for 358 yards and three touchdowns in a 35-6 win over Collingswood to break the program record, before topping his own record the following week in a 40-0 win over West Deptford, in which he ran for 373 yards and five touchdowns.
Last year, Palmer-Smith fell just three yards short of the record, only learning of what that record was after the game. Although he said his number one priority is getting the win, Palmer-Smith admits he did keep the number in the back of his head as something to push for individually during his senior season.
“I always kept that in the back of my head if I’m being honest,” he said. “During the Collingswood game, I had a feeling I was getting up there since I’d gone over 300 yards once before.”
Looking back, the senior said he owes a lot of his current success to those who played in the backfield before him, and from whom he learned quite a bit from before taking the reins in the backfield.
“I learned a lot from them early on,” Palmer-Smith said. “They both taught me a lot about how to keep my composure throughout the game, even when things aren’t going your way, and how to stay mentally tough back there.”
Following the two wins, Delran improved to 5-2 with just one game left in the regular season, clinching a share of the Colonial Division title alongside Haddonfield and Willingboro. After the program went a combined 10-30 in the four years before Lucas took over, the Bears entered this season 19-5 during his first three years. Now, they are again finishing up another winning season, which, according to the fourth year head coach, means a lot as the program continues to grow.
“This year so far has meant everything to us as a program, because when I first took over, we hadn’t been used to winning in a while,” Lucas said. “We were able to flip it and go 8-2 the first year, but we still didn’t make the playoffs because of strength of schedule. The following year we won our conference with a slightly tougher schedule and got to win a playoff game, while all the guys that are now seniors were sophomores, so that absolutely helped the program a lot.
“These kids have prepared for a very long time — not even looking at this past offseason but actual years in the making —to be able to do what they’re doing now, and it’s an absolute credit to what these guys are doing this season,” the coach added.