Using FB Zerbe differently might solve TE problem for Penn State

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Penn State football coach Bill O'Brien mentioned the name Pat Zerbe when discussing one way the offense might move on and adjust in the absence of injured tight end Matt Lehman. On the surface, a fullback/special teams guy would seem an odd choice to be discussed as somebody who might see increased action because of an injured tight end.

But that's how O'Brien's offense works, reconfiguring one position -- possibly in an unconventional way -- if there's a lack of depth at another. And that's how Zerbe works, too. He always is ready to assume a role out of his comfort zone.

He has been this way dating to high school. After his junior year at Wilson High School in West Lawn, Pa., he heard rumors he might be asked to switch from fullback and linebacker to the offensive line as a senior.

"I just ignored it because I didn't want to play the line," he said, joking.

Sure enough, his school's offensive line coach, Jeff Brubaker, approached him one day after a workout. He did want him to play on the line, as a right guard. Zerbe bulked up from about 235 pounds to 265 pounds and excelled as a senior.

"He was the kind of kid Penn State always looks for," Wilson High School coach Doug Dahms said. "He'll run through a brick wall and do everything you ask."

Arriving at Penn State in 2009 as a preferred walk-on, Zerbe saw little action his first two years. Then, in 2011, he tore his anterior cruciate ligament. In the ensuing months of rehab and practice, his effort impressed O'Brien enough for him to offer Zerbe a scholarship last summer. In 2012, he contributed on special teams and backed up Michael Zordich, one of Penn State's best fullbacks in recent years.

"He's always upbeat, just lives the day, ready to go," Zerbe said of Zordich. "I think that's a good quality to have, just happy to be here. I've always been like that but just seeing another guy like that helped me do it myself. I'm always happy to be here."

Zerbe played on special teams in Penn State's season opener Saturday. The Nittany Lions didn't use any two-back sets against Syracuse, which would have included him at fullback. Running backs coach Charles London said coaches wanted to get Zerbe in as much as possible, but their game plans are always catered to opponents, meaning his services might not be as necessary in a given week.

The techniques Zerbe learned from Brubaker, a former Penn State player, as an offensive lineman have helped him as a fullback as well. Zerbe said he learned you weren't supposed just to hit someone, where to put his hands and how to differentiate between run and pass protection.

Out of his comfort zone, Zerbe thrived back then. In O'Brien's offense, if his time is called to contribute as a fullback, he's ready to do that again.

psusports

Mark Dent: mdent@post-gazette.com, 412-439-3791 and Twitter @mdent05.


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