For three and a half seasons, ZaQorae Brown Hopkins was an unassuming member of the Howard football team -- as unassuming as a 6-foot-8, 370-pound person can be. A reluctant starter, he was chided by coaches and teammates for lack of motivation.
"I was using football to get an education," Brown Hopkins said. "A big reason I chose to come to Howard was the engineering program. I've wanted to be an aerospace engineer since I was 12."
During October, the senior right guard from Detroit developed into the linchpin of the Bison's offensive line, the lone starter to not miss a game this season because of injury.
"I don't know what's gotten into him," quarterback Donald Clark said. "He's become a force in there."
Over the past five games, Brown Hopkins "has blocked as well as any player in the conference," Bison Coach Ray Petty said.
Known as 'Z' to his teammates and coaches, Brown Hopkins stands out not only because he is perhaps the largest individual on the Howard campus, but also because his hair is always in a frazzled Afro. The senior is a major reason why the Bison (5-3, 3-2 Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference) have been able to run for 987 yards over their past five games despite a starting lineup that has changed almost weekly.
"You've seen the numbers," tackle Marques Ogden said. "Enough said about the job the line is doing."
Brown Hopkins's renaissance began the last week of September, when line coach Fred Dean changed his stance. The entire line had been forced to adjust from years of almost exclusive pass-blocking under the Bison's previous coach, Steve Wilson, to the more run-oriented offense favored by Petty.
"I think the system in which he's in now is more appropriate to where his strengths are," said Jonathan Cannon, who coaches the guards.
Dean had Brown Hopkins squat lower, putting more weight on his back foot and knees. By exploding forward he could bring more power to bear against the defensive tackles he faces, which often are outweighed by nearly 100 pounds.
"If you come out low at 370 pounds, you're going to move some people," Ogden said.
This week presents a different set of challenges with a trip to South Carolina State (6-3, 3-2), which has the second-rated defense in the MEAC.
"He's used to going after a guy standing right over him," Petty said. "They run a 30 front, which means he'll be forced to go after linebackers more. It'll be interesting to see how he does."
He already has shown a talent for adapting. Early in the Bison's 21-0 victory over Norfolk State, the Spartans' all-MEAC defensive tackle Brent Sanders had done a swim move around Brown Hopkins and nailed Howard tailback Jay Colbert in the backfield. Colbert jumped up and berated Brown-Hopkins on the way back to the huddle.
"So I'm yelling at him and he says 'Don't worry, it won't happen again,' " Colbert said. "And a few plays later, the guy tried it again, and 'Z' was ready for him."
Along with his improved play has come improved confidence.
"It came as a big surprise to everyone when 'Z' started talking trash," linebacker Tracy White said. "Ever since the FAMU game, he's been saying, 'Nobody can stop me,' things like that. It's as if he's a different guy."