Zy Crisler (72) Illinois Fighting Illini Football vs. Wyoming – 8/27/22
Courtesy of Craig Pessman/Illinois Athletics

By Robert Wilson

The college football season started Saturday with a handful of games across the country and a Mississippian made his Big 10 debut as a starter on the offensive line.

Copiah Academy and Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College alumnus Zy Crisler, a 6-foot-6, 330-pound sophomore, started at right guard for Illinois in its 38-6 victory over Wyoming Saturday in Champaign, Ill.

Illinois head coach Bret Bielema, who SEC fans remember was Arkansas head coach several years ago, and offensive line coach Bart Miller found Crisler when they went out recruiting offensive linemen at junior colleges across the country last fall.

Courtesy of Kerry Bass/MGCCC

“I think we know how to evaluate o-linemen,” Bielema said last week in a story on 247 Sports. “I was with Bart (Miller) and to see his length, to see the way he played, the way he can bend and move. Zy was actually playing left tackle when I saw him because we went to watch another left tackle and he jumped out to me on film and then to see him live. There’s a lot of really good things that came out of that process.”

Bielema is considered one of the top offensive line coaches in the country.

Crisler is one of four offensive linemen starters who are 6-6. The other one is 6-5, definitely one of the tallest offensive groups in the country. Crisler weighs the most. Three others are at 315 pounds and the other one is at 305. Crisler spent the spring and summer working hard to try to earn a starting position. It paid off. Bielema said Crisler started at “a little over 360” and is now in the “335 range.”

Said Bielema: “He’s just scratching the surface of how good he’s going to be.”

“Changing my body is something I was going to do,” Crisler said. “From Juco, they do change our body. We changed our body at Juco but up here you’ve got to be on it. For me, it’s so easy because they be on you every day making sure you’re good. It’s easy to adapt to.”

Illinois signed Crisler despite interest from other Power 5 programs once it became clear that Crisler was a full academic qualifier out of high school and did not need two years at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College.

“I’ve seen him grow, him develop and him mature,” Illinois offensive lineman Isaiah Adams said. “I think Zy has done a great job. He’s working hard every single day. He’s put himself in a position to grow as a player and as a man.”

Crisler was the No. 3 ranked offensive lineman among junior colleges in the country by 247 Sports.

Crislers, who was one the biggest players to play in the MAIS, was a star at Copiah, making the MAIS All-State Class 5A team.

“I’m so proud of Zy,” Copiah coach Billy Wayne Hankins said. “I only had the privilege to coach him one year. He was out of shape when I got here, but he committed himself to improve. Zy dropped 30 pounds that spring and has continued to improve ever since. He has a great family. Zy is very coachable and has really great feet for a guy that size. He played basketball for us also and made the all-star game.”

Crisler could become one day become the second Copiah football playing professional sports. Major league baseball player Hunter Renfroe, now in his seventh MLB season and playing for the Milwaukee Brewers, played football and baseball at Copiah. He graduated from Copiah in 2010 and played baseball at Mississippi State and was a first-round pick in the 2013 Major League Baseball Draft.

Courtesy of Copiah Academy

While playing at Copiah, Crisler caught the attention of one of the top junior college football programs in the country, Mississippi Gulf Coast CC.

“Zy had a great year at Gulf Coast last year,” Gulf Coast coach Jack Wright said. “He started every game at tackle as a true freshman. He’s an enormous kid that’s really light on his feet for his size. You could see the potential I him the very first day of practice. It’s no surprise to me that he’s doing really well at the next level. He’s a great talent and a high character kid. We’re very proud of him.”

There might be another football star coming up in the Crisler household. Zy’s younger brother, Justus, is a 6-2, 330-pound junior.