FLORENCE — The quarterback among the three Harlon Hill Trophy finalists started his college career as ... a punt returner/wide receiver.
And, it gave Shippensburg’s Zach Zulli a new perspective on the game. He much prefers sitting in the pocket picking apart opposing defenses as to being alone, waiting to field a punt with little protection.
Zulli has since turned into a record-setting quarterback, but for his freshman season he got an idea of what it’s like to play positions on which defenders can inflict some serious pain.
Zulli arrived at Shippensburg as a quarterback, but when he was beaten out for the starter’s spot he quickly offered to play another position.
“I was just trying to get on the field as much as possible,” Zulli said. “The guy who beat me out (at quarterback) played good. I don’t know what the coach was thinking. I just wanted to do what I could to help the team out and help the team win.”
Zulli admits it was an uncomfortable feeling returning punts.
“It was scary,” he said, laughing. “Plus, being a freshman, too. It’s a different atmosphere being back there on a punt and nobody around. Nobody is blocking for you, It was a good experience, and I think it helped me out.”
Returning punts was worse than playing receiver, he said. “Going across the middle wasn’t that bad, but going after a pass that’s thrown high and getting hit by one of the bigger guys on the field was rough.”
Now that he’s had that experience, Zulli tries to never throw high to his receivers.
“I try to throw low,” he said. “They like that.”
The reality is that Zulli has mostly been on target this season, throwing for 4,717 yards and 54 touchdown passes on 544 attempts to more than earn his Harlon Hill Trophy candidacy. He was named Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference East Division Offensive Player of the Year. Fellow candidate Franklyn Quiteh led Division II in rushing with 2,121 yards.
Zulli, though, said it’s not a case of PSAC defenses being soft.
“It’s not that the defenses are bad; there’s a lot of quality players in the PSAC,” he said. “There are some quality defenses. We just stood out. Franklin had a heckuva year and so did I. We led our teams to two great season, It was good to watch us both play.”
Zulli threw 34 touchdown passes as a sophomore, but with an experienced offense returning thought he could eclipse those numbers. Turns out, he shattered them.
“I focused more on watching film and doing more with the check downs,” he said. “That helped my completion percentage and helped our team move the ball more effectively. We’re a big-play offense, A lot of things come on timing, and when big plays happen when our timing is right.”
Zulli said he was shocked as he moved through the Harlon Hill voting.
“When I got in the top 24, and then the Top 8, it was like “Oh my gosh, it’s really going to happen.’ Now I’m here with these guys,” he said. “It’s an awesome, awesome feeling. It’s a kudos to my team. We played great this year and it wasn’t just me.”
Contact Gregg Dewalt at 256-740-5748 or email@example.com. Follow @greggdewalt on Twitter.