Cullowhee, N.C. - Western Carolina head football coach Mark Speir has completed his coaching staff entering the 2017 off-season, filling a lone remaining vacancy by announcing the elevation of Zac Etheridge to a full-time coaching position. Etheridge was a defensive assistant on staff working in the Catamount secondary with the corner backs last season, and is expected to work with the outside linebackers in WCU’s new scheme.
Etheridge takes over the position vacated by WCU alum Chris Collins who took a similar position at Georgia State under head coach Shawn Elliott in early January.
In addition to Etheridge moving into a different role, assistant coach Blake Gideon, who handled defensive play signaling at the end of the 2016 regular season, will work with all of the defensive backs while new defensive coordinator John Wiley will mentor the Catamount inside linebackers. Assistant head coach Mark Rhea, who is entering his seventh season on the WCU football staff, will continue to coach the defensive line.
In his first season on the WCU sidelines, Etheridge, who was part of Auburn’s 2010 National Championship squad, assisted in the Catamount defensive secondary which saw two players – senior CB Trey Morgan, with whom he worked directly, and senior S Fred Payne – both collect postseason All-Southern Conference plaudits. Morgan recorded his single-season, career-best 74 tackles including 47 solo stops last season, and also led the Catamounts with 10 pass break-ups including capping his home finale with a game-sealing interception – the 10th of his career.
Also last season, returning corner Keion Crossen collected SoCon Defensive Player of the Week honors following the home victory over VMI.
“We are very fortunate to be able to retain and have the ability to promote a coach the caliber of Zac Etheridge to a full-time position on our staff,” said Speir. “It will be an easy transition in elevating him because of his understanding of our program including recruiting and philosophies, and knowing our personnel on defense. He did an outstanding job and had a tremendous impact in our recruiting efforts this year with the departure of Chris Collins. He is above all else an outstanding person, coach, and recruiter.”
Etheridge joined the Catamount coaching staff prior to the 2016 season from Georgia Tech where he worked with the Yellow Jacket secondary. He also has coaching experience from Penn State under head coach Bill O’Brien and defensive coordinator Ted Roof, who was the defensive coordinator at WCU in 1997. Roof coached Etheridge for his final two seasons at Auburn.
A 2009 Auburn graduate with a degree in political science, Etheridge was a four-year football starter who broke his neck in the first quarter of a 2009 game against Ole Miss. Nine months later, after extensive rehabilitation, Etheridge returned to the starting lineup and captained his Auburn squad during its memorable run to the national title at the end of the 2010 season, finishing second on the team with 69 tackles, intercepting three passes, and returning a fumble 47 yards for a touchdown against Arkansas.
Etheridge garnered freshman All-America status from numerous publications following the 2007 season, starting 12 of Auburn's 13 games. He led Auburn with 75 tackles in 2008 and was named to the SEC Academic Honor Roll in 2009.
A native of Troy, Ala., Etheridge received the second-annual James Owens Courage Award from Auburn in 2013. The award, named for the school's first African-American football player, was established to honor a player who has shown courage in the face of adversity.
Etheridge briefly played for the Oakland Raiders, signing as a free agent in July, 2011. However, he was released after a knee injury.
Etheridge got engaged to his girlfriend, Cassandra Hulik, during the summer of 2016.
Western Carolina will hold its National Signing Day (NSD) reception this Saturday, Feb. 11 in the Auxiliary Gymnasium in the Ramsey Center. The reception, which begins at 11:00 am ahead of the program at Noon, is open to Catamount Club members at the Top Cat level and above, and will include special catering by Ingles The Chef’s Kitchen. Following the reception, the Catamount men’s basketball team hosts in-state conference rival, UNCG, at 2:00 pm in a game that will be broadcast live on WMYA-TV, My40 and on ESPN3.
Speir and the Catamounts are scheduled to open their annual spring drills next Tuesday, Feb. 14 on the turf at E.J. Whitmire Stadium / Bob Waters Field. The 15-practice session will be held over the next month or so, with WCU’s annual Spring Game, presented by Wells Fargo, slated for Saturday, March 18 at 1:30 pm.