UNIVERSITY PARK — During a scrimmage a week before this past spring’s Blue-White Game, Penn State fullback Jack Haffner took a handoff and bounced the run to the outside.
After absorbing a blow, Haffner extended his left arm to the turf to regain his balance, but while doing so he dislocated his shoulder.
“It was honestly like one of my first times on the field so it was kind of disappointing that it (happened),” Haffner said.
After a season that saw the former State College Little Lion battle injury while trying to adjust to the game’s physicality and digest a sizeable playbook, Haffner is back as a redshirt freshman to compete for field time.
Senior Pat Zerbe, who backed up Michael Zordich last season, will be the starter at fullback, but Haffner should vie for top backup with fellow redshirt sophomore Dominic Salomone.
“Jack is doing really well,” said running backs coach Charles London. “He came in as a freshman last year and didn’t get a whole lot of reps but really helped us on our dirty show or scout team.”
A dominant force on the ground for State College, it took time for the 5-foot-10, 211-pounder to sturdy himself for the physical rigors of Big Ten football.
As a senior, Haffner rumbled for 2,143 yards on 288 carries and 26 touchdowns and was a finalist for Pennsylvania Mr. Football.
He became just the second scholastic player in Centre County history to breach 2,000 yards in a season — joining former Little Lion and Nittany Lion All-American Larry Johnson — and was a first-team Class AAAA all-state running back. He also helped Al Wolski’s 2009 team to the PIAA Class AAAA state title game.
“He had it all, I think,” Wolski said. “He had the ability to cut, he had balance, he had power and he had a lot more speed than people gave him credit for.
“He had everything we were looking for in a running back, and he could also catch the ball out of the backfield and could block. We wish we could find another Jack Haffner.”
However, faster and heavier Big Ten bodies dictated quick adaptation. Haffner credits strength and conditioning coach Craig Fitzgerald with developing more power.
“Probably when you come in, the toughest drill is the blocking drill because you’re going against (linebacker Michael) Mauti and you have to block him,” Haffner said. “But now I’m holding my own.”
The 6-foot-2, 232-pound Mauti dumptrucked many a would-be blocker in his career, so Haffner should be well prepared this season.
Preparing for a massive playbook was a different story, although he hopes a second year in the system affords familiarity.
“Just having a better feel for everything,” he said. “You know when you’re a freshman it’s kind of hard to know all the plays because there are so many.”
For guidance and leadership, Haffner doesn’t look far.
“Zack (Zwinak),” he said emphatically when asked about team leaders. “He’s been doing a great job. He’s the star running back right now. He’s very confident, he runs the ball hard and I admire that.”
During the team’s media day earlier this month, Haffner turned to his right where Zwinak, Penn State’s 1,000-yaard back from last season, took questions from a gaggle of reporters.
“Look, like right now he’s fielding (questions from) 10 different reporters and I’m sure he’s doing a great job.”
As a freshman on the scout team, Haffner attacked the opposing team’s plays as if they were his own. London praised the stocky fullback, who earned a 3.39 GPA during the spring, for his ability to quickly translate what happens in the football classroom onto the field.
Haffner showed the commitment and work ethic expected from someone who passed up other opportunities to play at Penn State.
His father, Steve, and uncle, C.J. Sichler, played baseball at Penn State, and his aunt, Nancy Moerschbacher, played softball for the Nittany Lions.
“It was always kind of a dream to play Penn State football,” he said. “So now that I’m here it feels good.”
As for that dislocated left shoulder, it’s fine he says. And he won’t think twice about sticking it out there again.
“Feels good,” he said. “Just rehabbed all through summer and spring … Oh yeah, I’ll put it down again. That’ll be fine.”