UNIVERSITY PARK — Based on what he achieved as a three-year letterman at Penn State, there’s no doubt Zach Simpson could have been a very good player at some of the smaller programs that sought him out of Hollidaysburg Area High School.
He mentioned drawing interest from the likes of Youngstown State, VMI, “some FCS schools,” and the Ivy League.
But when Penn State came calling with an offer to be an invited walk-on, Simpson followed his heart to Happy Valley.
And he’s glad he did.
“When I made the decision, I really wasn’t sure if I was going to play football,” Simpson said Friday during Citrus Bowl media day at Beaver Stadium. “When Penn State showed interest in me, I kind of tuned everything else out because they’ve been my dream school. Growing up, I remember Penn State playing in big bowl games. To be part of that now is pretty special.”
Many if not most walk-ons, invited or not, don’t regularly see the field, especially early in their careers. Simpson was an exception.
The 6-foot-3, 302-pounder was strong, tough, athletic, versatile and smart enough to serve in a backup capacity at center and at both guard spots, but he made his biggest con ribution on special teams.
He was part of the field-goal and punt protection units, and as a redshirt freshman, he was on the kickoff team stationed in front of the returners.
He played in every game for three years, and at the team banquet last week, he was honored with the team’s walk-on award.
“I honestly didn’t expect that,” he said. “It was nice to be recognized. I definitely got on the field more than I expected and probably did better than I expected.”
Simpson is skipping a final year of eligibility. He was introduced with the seniors at the home finale against Maryland and will graduate in the spring with an economics degree.
In choosing PSU, Simpson passed up some scholarship money, and had he been placed on scholarship for 2019, he may have stayed. But he wasn’t anticipating a rise in the depth chart, beyond special teams, and is at peace with his timing.
“Whether to come back or not was a tough decision,” he said. “At the end of the day, it was my time to hang it up and move on. I’m excited about the next step. That (scholarship) would have factored into my decision, but that wasn’t the only factor.”
Simpson’s most meaningful action came at center last year when Connor McGovern was injured at Maryland. The former Golden Tiger stepped in with precision snaps and solid blocking during the Nittany Lions’ 66-3 rout.
This year’s starting center, Michal Menet, sat out the Maryland game with a concussion, but McGovern was moved back, and Mike Miranda made his first career start.
“Obviously, I would like to have played, but it’s not how it worked out,” Simpson said. “I did what I can to help the team. Mike (Miranda) came in and played well.”
McGovern said, “Zach is a great guy on and off the field. He’s my definition of the ultimate teammate. Comes in and works hard every single day, even if he doesn’t see the time he wants on the field. Never complains. Always does what he’s told.
I’m very proud of him.”
Simpson arrived knowing there was a distinction between the walk-ons and the scholarship guys, but he didn’t let that limit his hopes.
“Starting out, as a young guy, you have to be expecting things,” he said. “Some of the advantages are going to go to the guys on scholarship, the highly recruited guys. But I feel like once you’re here and prove your worth, there’s not a barrier.”
James Franklin has consistently praised Simpson, and Hollidaysburg coach Homer DeLattre called him “an awesome representation of our program.”
“To see him on the field contributing over the years and to hear the great things the coaches have to say about him makes the whole area proud,” DeLattre said. “I’m sure he could have had great success at a slightly lower level, but I truly feel Penn State needed a guy like Zach four years ago.”
Franklin said Simpson fits the model Penn State is seeking and in fact is an example to future preferred walk-ons.
“We’re going to try to compete (in recruiting) with guys that have scholarships, whether that’s (FCS) scholarships or Division II scholarships, for those guys to be able to chase their dreams, come to Penn State, be that guy that is able to have a significant impact, whether that’s playing in games, practice, whatever it may be,” Franklin said. “Obviously, the number one selling point is to be able to come get a Penn State degree.”
The NCAA graduate transfer rule, without the penalty of sitting out a season, is open to Simpson, and although he didn’t close the door, he’s not in active pursuit of another landing spot.
“At this point, I’m not really thinking about it, but it’s possible,” he said, adding he “probably” will end his career after the Lions’ Jan. 1 matchup with Kentucky in Orlando.
If that’s the case, he’ll leave grateful – to his parents “for allowing me to do this,” to Penn State for the opportunity and for the memories, having been part of a Big Ten champion in 2016 who played in the Rose, Fiesta and Citrus bowls.
“I feel at this point,” he said, “I’ve earned some respect around here.”
There’s no question.
Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.