Indiana grad Zilinskas taking his shot as walk-on at Pitt
When the Pitt Panthers began spring football drills last week, No. 19 had a hard time taking it all in.
“I looked down and saw I was holding a Pitt football helmet,” the newest member of the team said, “and I had to pinch myself.”
Since he was a little kid growing up here in Indiana, Jake Zilinskas dreamed of wearing the Pitt blue and gold. It took a detour to Ohio for four months, but Zilinskas — No. 19 on the Pitt spring football roster — is finally living out his dream.
Zilinskas, the son of former Indiana High coach Mark Zilinskas, recently transferred to Pitt after one semester at NCAA Division III powerhouse John Carroll.
He now finds himself the fifth quarterback on a five-quarterback team. He’s a walk-on, so he’ll have to pay his way as he navigates the giant leap from small-college football to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
“I always thought I’d try to find a way to get here,” Zilinskas said. “I liked John Carroll. But once I got there, I couldn’t get the thought out of my mind of being at Pitt. It wasn’t about John Carroll. I have a ton of respect for that school. But I just didn’t have a good feeling about it because I always wanted to be at Pitt.”
The road to Pittsburgh wasn’t an easy one. After his junior season at Indiana, when he threw for 1,617 yards and 21 touchdowns, Zilinskas was on the radar of many college recruiting coordinators who loved his dual-threat ability to run and throw the football effectively.
But three games into his senior season, on a cold, rainy night in Kittanning, Zilinskas suffered a serious hip injury in the Indians’ loss to Armstrong, and his high school career was over. The college coaches that had once checked in on him regularly stopped calling. He finished his high school career with 2,561 passing yards, 924 rushing yards and 29 passing touchdowns against only seven interceptions. He also intercepted eight passes on defense.
Despite the severe injury, Zilinskas never believed his football career was over.
“I didn’t want my career to end like that,” he said. “There was part of me that wondered how I’d heal. I wondered if I was ever going to be the same again.”
Zilinskas had the hip surgically repaired, and he missed his entire senior season of high school basketball because of it. He initially planned on enrolling at Pitt and trying to walk on to the football team, but in the spring, he announced he would play at John Carroll, about 30 minutes east of Cleveland.
It’s not that Zilinskas didn’t like being at John Carroll. It’s just that his dream had always been to play at Pitt. So halfway through his freshman season, Zilinskas talked to his parents and said he wanted to leave. He wanted to go to Pitt, and he didn’t want to wait.
Zilinskas applied to Pitt, and on Dec. 22, he received the email that he had been accepted. He called the Panthers’ coaching staff and was told that if he enrolled in January, he could be a part of the team as a walk-on.
“When I went to John Carroll, I realized I was giving up on my dream of playing at Pitt,” he said. “I realized that I have one life to live, so I needed to go chase my dream and do what I’ve always wanted to do. So, when I was given the opportunity, I wasn’t going to pass up on it again.”
The adjustment has been a big one. In addition to the good things, like a huge off-campus practice facility on the South Side of Pittsburgh, there are the difficult things, like trying to find a place on a roster filled with Division I talent. The Panthers added a huge transfer in the offseason, Max Browne, who played in 18 games over three seasons at USC. They also have Ben DiNucci, who played most of the Pinstripe Bowl in December, and two other freshmen, Thomas MacVittie and Kenny Pickett, who come with pedigrees that suggest they can play at the Division I level.
But Zilinskas doesn’t believe he’s in over his head.
“I think this level of play was something that I always wanted to get to,” he said. “Going to camps and seeing all these kids with (Division I) offers, I never felt like I was that far behind. But the speed of the game here is really fast.”
Opportunities will be limited for a while, and Zilinskas is OK with that. Because he transferred up from a Division III school, Zilinskas will have to sit out the 2017 season. He can practice with the Panthers, but he cannot play in a game. He’s also the only walk-on quarterback on the roster, so he knows he’ll be last in the pecking order for snaps in practice.
“Now that I’m here, not only am I as happy as I’ve ever been, I’m as motivated as I’ve ever been,” he said. “I’m going to work as hard as I possibly can and take advantage of every rep and every opportunity I get.”
At John Carroll, Zilinskas could retain hope that he was in the program’s long-range plans. At Pitt, he knows things are different. He’ll have to prove in practice that he belongs on the roster, and that someday he might be able to help the Panthers win some games.
That’s a long way away, though. For now, Zilinskas is taking the opportunity to live out his dream. The fact is he’s a member of the Pitt football team, and that’s all that matters.
“I understand exactly the position I am in,” he said. “It doesn’t bother me at all. I’m just happy to be here and happy to be a part of this team.”