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Penn State Football: How Its Few Veterans Will Lead a Young Squad

by on February 22, 2015 10:00 PM

Youth will be served. But, first, it must be led.

And for Penn State football, that leadership takes different forms. 

End around?

More like an errand run, like when veteran wide receiver Matt Zanellato drove brand-new freshman quarter- back Tommy Stephens to pick up a few things at Walmart the other day.

Trap the new guy in a mistake?

More like veteran center Angelo Mangiro already teaching the X’s and O’s of a pulling lineman to recent JUCO transfer and offensive tackle Paris Palmer. 

Zanellato and Mangiro’s tact is necessary. The 2015 Nittany Lions are:

• Unusually young. Come summer practice, at least 50 of their 85 scholarship players will be in their first or second year at Penn State. As it is, this is the first winter under Penn State conditioning guru Dwight Gait for 23 players on scholarships.

• Fairly bereft of starters with multiple years of experience. The top six players with career starts from the 2014 squad are gone –- three despite having another year of eligibility remaining (Jesse James, Donovan Smith, Deion Barnes).  Only seven returnees have 15 or more starts in their Penn State careers.

• Without six of their seven co-captains from the 2014 season. Only quarterback Christian Hackenberg, a junior next season, returns. “And,” said offensive tackle Andrew Nelson, “I think Hack’s going to fulfill that role of offensive leader even better than he did last year.”

• Coming off a roller coaster 2014 season, that saw them start 4-0, then go 2-6 before beating Boston College in overtime in the Pinstripe Bowl. 

• Down to six fifth-seniors, usually the core of any successful college football team, with Mangiro, Zanellato, Anthony Zettel, Ben Kline, Kyle Carter and Carl Nassib. All came in as scholarship players in 2011 except for Nassib, a walk-on who earned a grant-in-aid in 2013 under Bill O’Brien. 

LION LEADERS IN 2015

In interviews with a half-dozen current team members on Saturday, all six pointed to Mangiro and Hackenberg as two key leaders for the 2015 squad. It’s a mantle Mangiro, who played three O-line positions in 13 starts last season, wears well.

“I try to have a relationship with everyone on the team,” said the bearded Mangiro, a gregarious kind of guy. “I try to talk with everyone. We have a hundred-some guys on the team, so it’s not always easy to do. … My personality is outgoing, so I like finding out where they’re from and stuff, and just talking with them, relating to them, asking how they’re doing, asking if they’re struggling. And if they’re in a certain situation, tell them how I dealt with it.”

Zanellato didn’t make a single catch in 2014. But his contributions come in other ways, especially as the patriarch of a wide receiver corps that featured three first-season players in DaeSean Hamilton, Saeed Blacknall and Chris Godwin. In some ways, he assisted in every one of their combined 118 receptions last season.

“Of all the guys on the team, I think that’s one of my strong suits,” said Zanellato. “College can be a tough time, being away from your family. You may want to call home and ask for advice, but you can’t always. There’s a lot going on – practice, freshman study hall, you’re tired – so to have an older player you can talk with means a lot. We’re all brothers, we’re all on the same team, we all have the same goal.”

MAUTI AND ZORDICH

Both Zanellato, an Academic All-Big Ten in 2014, and Zettel, a first-team All-Big Ten defensive tackle last season, say they’ve learned whatever leadership skills they have from the very best – Michael Mauti and Michael Zordich, the pillars of the landmark 2012 Nittany Lions.

“I really look out for the younger guys because I received such good leadership. Mauti and Zordich looked after me,” said Zanellato, who speaks with the measured perspective of someone beyond 21 years old. “I had a rough go of it with some family issues going on as a freshman, and O’Brien knew that, so Mauti and Zordich took me under their wings and really looked out for me. I try to do that as an older player now.”

Zettel also credits his success to Mike and Mike, and another Mike as well – first-team All-Big Ten linebacker Mike Hull, the heart and soul of Penn State’s highly-ranked defense last year who now has his sights set on the NFL.

“When I was a young player, there were guys who stepped up and I really followed, and that made me the player I am today,” Zettel said on Saturday. “When I was a freshman, (Academic All-American defensive end) Pete Massaro took me under his wing and showed me the ropes. Mike Mauti was one of the best leaders I’ve ever been around.

“Last year Mike Hull was just inspirational. He’s a guy who came to work every day, and you knew he was going to give 100 percent in everything he did. Off the field he does everything right, so just being around that guy made you better. It made the attitude of the team so much better.”

When asked who will be the leaders in 2015, in addition to those already noted, these are some of the other names that were mentioned a couple of times: wide receiver Geno Lewis, defensive tackle Austin Johnson, safety Jordan Lucas, cornerback Trevor Williams, and linebackers Nyeem Wartman, Brandon Bell and Ben Kline.

Hackenberg is especially impressed by how Kline has performed in offseason workouts. Kline missed all of the 2014 season after tearing his Achilles tendon last summer. In 2013 Kline appeared in only six games, playing despite shoulder and pectoral injuries that cut his season short in November of that year after gamely playing nearly all of the Nittany Lions’ game at Minnesota with a torn pec.

“The guy I’m looking forward to have come back and playing is a guy I have a ton of respect for – Ben Kline,” Hackenberg said. “He’s a guy who’s been through it all here. He showed us what he’s all about when he played in that Minnesota game with basically no arms and played pretty well. I’ve been impressed about the way he’s worked and what he’s showed throughout the entire process. He’s going to full-speed with us when he’s running and we’re in the weight room.”

HOW FRANKLIN MINTS LEADERS

Second-year head coach James Franklin is the leader of the program. His forte is clearly building communities and he works to help his leaders lead the team’s younger players. 

“I think coach Franklin and his staff puts us in a position to do that by switching our lockers around, putting us around new people,” Mangiro said. “Every year we have new people by our locker. … In the past year-and-a-half, I’ve been with what I call The Corner Crew. There’s me, Pook (Gregg Garrity), Trevor Williams, Brent Wilkerson and Albert Hall. Hanging with different guys helps out with the dynamics of the whole team. Mixing up offense, defense – it’s all good stuff.”

Zanellato is also a fan of how Franklin sets the stage for the team’s older players to mentor the younger ones.

“Coach Franklin does a great job of bringing in the new freshmen and welcoming them and integrating into them into our system,” he said. “We have what’s almost like a big brother, little brother set-up. In some ways, it’s what they do at a frat.

“You look out for them. You show them the ropes.”

And, the theory goes, you win with them.



Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football for StateCollege.com since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/PSUPoorman. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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