I had the opportunity to catch up with former Gator defensive tackle Zachary Carter during his time back in Gainesville. Carter just finished his rookie season in the National Football League with the Cincinnati Bengals; he started nine of the 16 games in which he appeared.
Carter played four seasons at Florida from 2018 to 2021. He racked up 107 total tackles, 28.5 tackles for loss and 17.5 sacks in 46 games at UF.
What was your rookie season like with the Cincinnati Bengals?
Carter: That was a dream come true. Just to be able to come into the NFL my rookie year and to be able to contribute in some way. Obviously, I didn’t play as much as I wanted to, but just being positive and looking to the good like I contributed a decent amount, and I was able to accomplish my dreams. Now it’s just about building off of that first year and trying to keep improving year in and year out.
Have there been any moments along the way that made you have that “I made it” feeling?
Carter: I’ve had some moments like that, but truly I feel like I’ll know I made it, made it. I never get satisfied. I don’t like to get complacent. I don’t feel like I’ve done enough personally, but I feel like I’ll know when I made it. Me, I’ve got big dreams, I set big goals, so until I make a pro bowl or make an all-pro or anything like that, I don’t think I’ve made it yet.
Did having a former college teammate in Evan McPherson help you get adjusted to being on a new team in the NFL?
Carter: It’s definitely helped. You know, coming into a locker room where you don’t know anybody it's a completely different vibe, brand new. I feel like Evan did a good job of welcoming me in, and that’s my guy. He’s a great guy, and he was a great friend and great teammate throughout the whole year kind of helping me through that rookie process because he just went through it a year before so it was good. It was really good to have him there.
What was it like to make the playoffs and make it to the American Football Conference Championship?
Carter: That was really special. I was just like ‘wow,’ it kind of felt like a dream. The first year in the league, we were in the AFC Championship, stuff I used to watch on TV. It was crazy to experience that. I know we’ll be back just because of the team we have. So I’m looking forward to being back, hopefully winning a Super Bowl very soon.
How do NFL stadiums like Arrowhead Stadium and Paycor Stadium compare to Ben Hill Griffin and other stadiums in the Southeastern Conference?
Carter: It doesn’t compare. I used to get more nervous playing in Ben Hill than playing in the NFL cause it’s just so big and just so loud. College is just different man. You know, I just miss Gainesville, I miss Florida as a whole. There’s no better feeling than that. So just comparing it to the NFL, I don’t think anything has anything on Ben Hill Griffin, personally. I’m not being biased either. I played in every stadium. The one that could probably come close is Death Valley, [Louisiana State]. I miss playing in college, there’s no feeling like that.
Were there any major takeaways from your time with the Gators?
Carter: Yeah, definitely. You know, just not playing much my first few years in college, like my first three years. I redshirted then I didn’t play my second year, then my redshirt sophomore year I kind of start. I didn’t play a lot at the beginning of the year, then injuries, so I got my opportunity. I just took it and ran from there. I’ll just say, the biggest thing for me is setting goals, knowing what you want to accomplish, and being able to go get it. A lot of people set goals, they say they want to do this, they want to do that. But they don’t put the work in to do it. When you really set your mind to do something, you go all out and do it, and I’ll say I discovered that myself. My experience in college helped me dig deeper into who I am and just it made me who I am today.
What were some of your favorite games you played at Florida?
Carter: Personally, my favorite was the Georgia game. We beat Georgia in 2020, that was one of my favorite games. Then the SEC Championship, even though we lost, that was like, “it’s the SEC Championship.” It doesn’t get much better than that. That was another one of my favorite games, I would say those two.
Who have been the hardest quarterbacks to try and slow down as a defensive tackle, either in the NFL or college?
Carter: I played a lot of good quarterbacks. Obviously, I’ll say Joe Burrow. He was just different. He’s a great player. I’ll say, you know [there] was actually a quarterback from Florida State, Jordan Travis. He’s pretty shifty, man. It’s kind of hard to catch him, you really got to be on your stuff to catch him. I’ll give you some NFL ones. Lamar Jackson, NFL, easily ‘cause it’s more recent. [Patrick] Mahomes. Deshaun Watson. It’s a lot, man, you just got to be ready there’s a lot of good quarterbacks out there.
How did practicing against guys who have gone on to play in the NFL help you get better during your time at Florida?
Carter: I just feel like competition breeds excellence going against all these guys. You know I’m going against some greats. It just breeds competition. It brings the best out of me practicing against these guys every day. It used to make me want to go harder in practice, it really brought the dog out of me.
What does it mean for you to return to Gainesville?
Carter: It means everything. Just knowing my years here, I knew I needed some guidance. As people, we don’t have everything figured out. We used to have guys come back and mentor me and things like that. That’s why I come back sometimes. I’ve still got some guys on the team that I played with, mainly the D-linemen, because you’re closest with your position group. I’m actually going to talk to the D-line today. Coach [Sean Spencer], the D-line coach, he asked me to come speak to those guys today, just giving them some insight and trying to motivate them. Just let them know that if I can do it, you could do it. It’s just that simple. It feels good to be able to give back.
Jackson Reyes is a UF journalism senior and The Alligator's Fall 2023 Sports Editor. He previously served as Digital Managing Editor and was a reporter and assistant editor on the sports desk. In his free time, he enjoys collecting records, long walks on the beach and watching Bo Nix.