Countdown to Blue-White / 3 Days: How Will Penn State Replace Michael Zordich at Fullback?
For the first time in several seasons, Penn State will enter the 2013 campaign without an established fullback on the roster.
Joe Suhey and Michael Zordich overlapped for three years from 2009-2011, forming a nice tandem. Zordich took care of much of the dirty work when it came to blocking and short-yardage situations while Suhey served as a solid receiver out of the backfield, providing a safety valve for Daryll Clark, Matt McGloin, and Rob Bolden on passing plays.
When Suhey graduated following the 2011 season, Zordich emerged as both a presence on the field and a leader off it. The fullback was one of the most vocal players in the days following July’s sanctions and is credited as one of the seniors that helped Bill O’Brien keep the 2012 team intact when players had the ability to transfer to any program that expressed interest.
Zordich was more than just an emotional voice, of course. The increased playing time led to him posting career highs in carries (80), rushing yards (296), receptions (15), receiving yards (152), and touchdowns (4). Before Zach Zwinak was discovered, Zordich stepped up against Navy to lead the Nittany Lions in rushing yards with Bill Belton and Derek Day both missing the contest due to injury.
Zordich would never again finish a game as the team’s leading rusher but was responsible for 14 first downs over the course of the season and only lost yards on six attempts. On top of the first downs, he converted a key two-point conversion during the fourth quarter comeback against Northwestern and helped seal the victory a few minutes later with a 25-yard scamper followed by a 3-yard touchdown run.
O’Brien often grouped Zordich in with a set of players who knew their jobs — a group who was not on the field for every play and sometimes were asked to help out on special teams but always contributed.
“They went in there and they accepted their role on special teams,” said O’Brien at the midpoint of last season. “Maybe they started some games, they backed up other games, but at the end of the day, they helped the team win.”
As the page turns to 2013 and Zordich sets his sights on an NFL career, the Nittany Lions face uncertainly at his old position.
The official roster lists three fullbacks, with little game action and zero recorded statistics between the trio. Center Ty Howle said during a media availability period last week that redshirt senior Pat Zerbe is taking snaps at the position this spring. Zerbe tore his ACL before the 2011 season. He returned last season but received minimal game action.
In addition to Zerbe, there is Jack Haffner, a redshirt freshman from State College Area High School, and another redshirt freshman Dominic Salomone.
Given O’Brien’s affection for running some complex packages including two tight-end sets, a fullback is not necessarily essential to his offense, but he could have a few creative options. The first one comes in the form of Zwinak. The bruising running back is built like a fullback — the same height and weight as Zordich — and O’Brien could line him up there when Belton or Akeel Lynch is in the backfield to give defenses something else to think about.
The other is Jesse James. By position, he is listed as a tight end but was moved all over the field last season. The first play that jumps out comes in the second quarter of the game at Nebraska. With Zwinak at running back, James lines up as a fullback (3:11 mark of the video) where he runs a short 5-yard pattern and walks 8 more yards into the end zone for a touchdown. The second example occurs in the season finale against Wisconsin. In arguably the most important play of the season, O’Brien lines James up as a slot receiver (3:08 mark of the video) facing a crucial 4th and 6 early in the fourth quarter. James gets open down the field, scoring a 41-yard touchdown and giving the Nittany Lions the lead after trailing most of the game.
There is a bit of precedent here from O’Brien. During a 2012 playoff run, the then New England Patriots offensive coordinator would sometimes set up Pro Bowl tight end Aaron Hernandez at the fullback position. It worked so well against the Denver Broncos that Hernandez broke off a 43-yard run on the game’s opening drive and finished as the Patriots leading rusher with 61 yards on the ground.
Zwinak and James are not about to change positions and become the next Zordich, but they give O’Brien two more pieces to mix and match with at times. Overall, O’Brien has not been talked about this issue much, and it has not come up in any formal press conference.
The issue is not an overly pressing one, and it likely will not be the deciding factor in a game this upcoming season, but it is a question for O’Brien to ponder. Penn State fans will have to wait until the fall to find the answer, but a glimpse could be provided on Saturday.
This is the 31st in a 33-day series about Penn State football program leading up to the Blue-White Game on April 20. Click here for past installments in the series.