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Anchorage's Zach Lujan continues to ascend through college football's coaching ranks

Jan. 25—After helping guide his alma mater South Dakota State University to a second straight FCS Division I national football championship as the offensive coordinator earlier this month, Anchorage's Zach Lujan is moving up to the big leagues in college football. He recently accepted a job to serve in the same position at Northwestern University at the FBS Division I level.

"It feels great to get to work with good people, in a great situation with great kids," Lujan said.

Making it to the FBS, the highest level of Division I in the NCAA, wasn't necessarily his goal when he first started coaching. The former South Anchorage High standout's primary focus was to make sure he had an opportunity to "work with good people and the ability to have sustained success."

"Obviously, with everything that (Northwestern) coach (David) Braun did last year, it kind of sets the foundation with that in a big way," Lujan said.

Braun took over the program in 2023 at a tumultuous time in the wake of a hazing scandal. He went from interim head coach of the Wildcats to being given the title officially after replacing former long-time coach Pat Fitzgerald and had immediate success, going 8-5 and winning a bowl game.

Lujan is excited for the chance to continue to build off that momentum and help revitalize the program.

Toward the end of the season, Braun reached out to him and started building a relationship while going through the initial steps of the interview process.

Northwestern didn't waste any time putting their new play caller to work. Lujan was hoisting a championship trophy as a Jackrabbit on Jan. 7 and later that week, his first day with the Wildcats was already underway.

Lujan said it was a relief to finally put pen to paper and sign his first contract to become a FBS Division I coach. His focus moving forward is just to enjoy the experience as well as remembering where he has come from and what has shaped him.

He is temporarily living with one of his former fellow coaches from SDSU, Christian Smith, who coaches the Wildcats' defensive line.

Lujan recently got engaged and his fiancée, who is also from Anchorage, will be moving to Illinois soon where they'll be looking for a house and begin the next chapter of their lives.

"We've known each other a long time and reconnected during COVID on a deeper level," he said "Starting the next chapter of our lives is going to be an exciting adventure."

Magical last ride with the Jackrabbits

His last year coaching at his alma mater couldn't have gone any better as SDSU went undefeated on its way to a successful national title defense.

"It was unbelievable to end that chapter of my coaching career in the fashion that we did," Lujan said. "Coaching not just special talent but good kids too was also really fun and (made for a) special year."

When comparing the first championship run to the second, he believes that last year was incredibly special because it resulted in the first national title in program history.

"This year was about ending things the right way with a special senior class," Lujan said. "There were different motivations but the end goal was the same."

[Bleeding blue: Former Anchorage football standout Zach Lujan's journey has taken him to a national stage]

As good as the team's defense was, giving up an average of just 9.2 points per game, his explosive unit was the catalyst for their overwhelming success for the second year in a row because of all the pressure it put on their opponents to try to keep up.

The Jackrabbits' offense averaged 37.3 points per game compared to 34.2 in 2022, racked up 6,75 yards of total offense on 883 plays which was 979 yards more than they accumulated the previous year on 50 fewer total plays. SDSU also averaged 7.6 yards per play compared to 6.2 and scored 73 total touchdowns which was nearly 10 more than they had the year before with 65.

"It has been a surreal journey in terms of starting my coaching career at my alma mater and continuing to build on the success that we have had for decades culminating in back-to-back national championships was special," Lujan said.

Not only has Lujan helped produce winning teams, he's developed some high-level players.

The team's offensive line was dubbed the 605 Hogs, a nod to the South Dakota area code. It's likely two of those players — tackle Garret Greenfield and guard Mason McCormick — will get selected in the 2024 NFL Draft this spring and they certainly aren't alone.

Star senior running back Isaiah Davis posted career highs and ran for over 1,400 yards and scored 15-plus touchdowns for the second year in a row and is projected to get drafted in the mid to late rounds.

He'll be down in Mobile, Alabama for the annual Reese's Senior Bowl next week and competing against some of the best upperclassmen in the nation in practice and the all-star game.

Greenfield and McCormick will be among five Jackrabbits who will be down in Frisco, Texas next week taking part in the 99th annual East-West Shrine Bowl. Their other three former SDSU teammates that will be taking part include tight end Zach Heins and twin brother wide receivers Jadon and Jaxon Janke.

Lujan said that Davis and junior quarterback Mark Gronowski "set the foundation" for what they did on the offensive side of the ball.

Being able to guide Gronowski from being an unheralded recruit to being recognized as the best player in the FCS as the 2023-24 recipient of the Walter Payton Award winner meant a great deal to Lujan as a former Jackrabbits signal-caller himself.

"It's essentially the FCS Heisman Trophy," he said. "It was really a special deal and a testament to him, his work ethic and leadership."

Lujan said it's humbling to look back on his journey going from a kid from Anchorage to ascending through the college coaching ranks. He hopes his journey will show other kids from Alaska what is possible.

Lujan played a key role in recruiting some talent from the Last Frontier to his alma mater including 2022 Alaska Gatorade Player of the Year Jack Nash most recently. He plans to continue to keep an eye out for elite local talent at Northwestern as well.

"First and foremost, I'll always be cheering for and pulling for kids from Alaska and am excited to see how their individual journeys go," he said. "I'm obviously going to keep my eye on everything up there from a developmental talent standpoint."