Zanellato is Bigger & Better

The redshirt freshman receiver has benefited greatly from Penn State's new strength program.

This time a year ago, Penn State's Matt Zanellato was weak. An off-season's worth of conditioning and lifting suddenly went awry as sickness caused the freshman wideout to lose eight pounds in five days and more than 20 pounds overall.

At 6-foot-3, he went from 195 pounds to 173. It forced him to struggle through preseason camp and eventually redshirt.

But Zanellato is back.

To see him now compared to a season ago is to see a total transformation at the hands of new PSU strength and conditioning coach Craig Fitzgerald. When preseason workouts kicked off in early August, the Virginia native checked in at a healthy 203 pounds.

“Coming in last year, dropping down in weight really affected me,” Zanellato said. “To be 6-3 or 6-4 and be around 180 going into camp, it just doesn't work for my size.”

Bulking up in the off-season should allow the redshirt freshman to handle the increased load now on his shoulders. Transfers and other defections hit the wideout corps hard, meaning even an inexperienced player like Zanellato is being counted on to help make the passing game click.

Throughout the spring, Zanellato joined fellow wideout Christian Kuntz as the offensive utility men, playing all three receiver spots. They were even needed in the slot when Devon Smith and Alex Kenney were slowed by injuries, and Curtis Drake was shipped to cornerback.

But the summer saw significant changes to the positions. Smith and Drake were both dismissed from the team. Kenney returned, healthy. And leading returning receiver Justin Brown transferred to Oklahoma after NCAA sanctions were leveled against Penn State.

True to form, Zanellato is ready to help wherever the staff needs him.

“The whole thing with Justin transferring, I just look at it as Justin got injured, and now there is a roll to be filled,” Zanellato said. “We all have to do what we can to step up and fill it, and I'm just looking forward to the season.”

Stepping up is a literal concept for Zanellato, too.

He hauled in 94 passes and 21 touchdowns during his senior season at Lake Braddock Secondary School (Burke, Va.), and many of those TDs came on jump balls. Zanellato, Kuntz (6-4, 218) and Allen Robinson (6-3, 201) appear to provide Bill O'Brien's new offense with the sort of big, physical pass catchers that have rarely seen the field at PSU in recent years.

“These guys are going to go out and battle and show up,” O'Brien said. “I've got a pretty good idea they'll make some plays.”

“My biggest strength has been being able to get off the line more easily than last season because of my strength, and that will help me free up some space to get up for the ball,” Zanellato added.

His connection with starting quarterback Matt McGloin should help, too.

“I got a lot of reps with Matt in the spring and preseason so far since I played all three receiver positions,” Zanellato said. “So I think we have a connection going.”

If O'Brien is worried about a lack of experience at wideout — Shawney Kersey's five catches last season were top among returning receivers — he is not letting on. The new coach bristled at criticism of the position, telling reporters, “Nobody's in that building, nobody sees what we see.”

He pointed to Kersey and Robinson as fast, high flyers with great hands. He talked about Kenney and senior Evan Lewis doing good things in the slot. And, of course, he mentioned Kuntz and Zanellato as big, physical players.

“We feel good,” O'Brien said.

So does Zanellato. Now completely healthy and flexible enough to play all of the receiver positions, he can't wait for the season to get here so he can prove himself on the field.

“I saw myself at the end of spring ball getting some playing time because I played all three positions,” he said. “Now it looks like that may be a reality.

“Now I just have to step up and fill whatever role I need to,” he added.

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