Walking on air: Simpson getting shot at PSU

This tiger is changing his stripes.

Golden Tiger, that is.

After leaning that way for a couple of months, Hollidaysburg Area High School senior lineman Zach Simpson decided on Saturday to join the Penn State Nittany Lion football team as a preferred walk-on.

“This has always been a dream of mine,” the low-key Simpson said on Monday, “so it was very exciting to know that this was a possibility.”

It became a possibility around the time Penn State hosted Michigan State. Simpson was invited to the game and told by the staff that they’d like him to join the team, although they didn’t have a scholarship for him at the time.

Simpson, whose primary recruiting contact was Lion offensive line coach Herb Hand, thought on it for a couple of months, but he felt from that point on that he’d be a Nittany Lion. He was just waiting to tell the staff in person when he and a number of other recruits made unofficials visits to University Park on Saturday.

“I kind of thought I was going to do that,” Simpson said of walking on. “Growing up in Hollidaysburg, it’s the hometown team. I’ve always been a fan of Penn State. My brother went to Penn State. My uncle went there. It’s always been my favorite school.”

Simpson said he’s been going to about one Penn State game per year as a fan.

Penn State is looking at Simpson as a guard or a center. The 6-foot-3, 276-pounder is a two-time Altoona Mirror first-team all-region selection at offensive tackle and made the Greater Allegheny Conference all-star teams on both offense and defense the past two years, getting a nod this year as a first-team offensive tackle.

Simpson also plays baseball for Hollidaysburg and joined the basketball team – he’s making an impact as a back-up forward.

“They like his motor, his hip level and his drive,” Hollidaysburg coach Homer DeLattre said of the reasons Penn State thought it was worth bringing Simpson into their program. “He has the ability to redirect, and he’s pretty athletic.”

Simpson missed about half his senior year with illness and injury, and it made it easy to measure his value. When he played, the Golden Tigers averaged 19.6 points and 319.0 yards. When he was out, Hollidaysburg scored 28 total points and averaged 158.3 yards. Hollidaysburg finished 4-5.

“He has been our most consistent lineman,” DeLattre said. “He gives you a sense of confidence when he’s in there. I think (his being in there) makes the players around him more confident.”

Smaller Division I colleges like Youngstown State, Virginia Military Institute and Cornell were among the schools recruiting Simpson the hardest, but, when Youngstown and VMI made coaching changes, the coast was cleared for Penn State to land the Golden Tiger standout. Gannon and IUP also pursued him.

From that list of colleges, it’s obvious that Simpson possesses brain as well as brawn. DeLattre said he scored very well on his SATs.

Interestingly, Simpson said one of his favorite players is Penn State academic All-American John Urschel. Although he did get a scholarship, Urschel, now a starter with the Baltimore Ravens, was an under-the-radar recruit from the Buffalo area, and, like Simpson, he has a passion for mathematics.

Simpson plans to study engineering as his major at Penn State.

“I’ve always like math and science. I’ve always been good at math. My brother’s a civil engineer. My uncle’s a civil engineer,” Simpson, a Washington Redskins fan, said. “I feel like I would be a good engineer.”

As a preferred walk-on, Simpson will have many of the advantages full-fledged scholarship members of the team enjoy – like training table – but he’ll be paying tuition, at least for the time being. Simpson almost certainly will redshirt his freshman season and will be working on making himself bigger and strong in the hopes of earning playing time, and maybe even a scholarship, down the road.

“I’ll just try to do my best,” Simpson said. “As things fall into place, hopefully they’ll work out for me.”