Jim Fitzgerald saw an opportunity.
Archbishop Spalding’s productive senior offensive tackle had the chance to further his collegiate career anywhere. His 6-foot-7, 315 pounds of bulk certainly would’ve satisfied any school, and did, as Fitzgerald flashed numerous Division I offers on his Twitter.
None satisfied him as much as Penn State. Fitzgerald proudly declared he was committing to Penn State as a preferred walk-on on Tuesday. Fitzgerald is one of several Cavaliers to announce commitments on social media this week just days ahead of Division I and II football signing day Wednesday.
He joins a growing pool of Spalding products that continued on to Penn State — such as 2021 graduate Zakee Wheatley — countless Big Ten players at this point and even more major Division I signings. Penn State, likewise, added a major piece in 2020 from Anne Arundel — Pasadena’s Landon Tengwall, a four-star offensive tackle recruit.
The Nittany Lions won Fitzgerald over Maryland, Virginia Tech (other PWOs), Maine, West Virginia, Virginia and others.
Some may see “preferred walk-on” offer and think, “Why not go somewhere you can play now?”
But Fitzgerald knows what he wants. He liked the way Nittany Lions offensive line coach Phil Trautwein recruited him and the attention head coach James Franklin paid him. When Fitzgerald visited State College, Pennsylvania, several days ago, the campus wooed him.
Moreover, as the Spalding senior studied Penn State in its games this past season, its history of walk-ons and his fellow offensive line commits, he saw a glaring spot for him to fill.
The Nittany Lions are still endeavoring to build chemistry into a robust offensive line, per Kyle Andrews of the Centre Daily Times. Penn State extended a handful other PWOs to other linemen as well as Fitzgerald.
“I looked at the situation and they have three other [class of 2022] guys that are linemen on scholarship,” Fitzgerald said. “That makes about five incoming offensive linemen. There’s not many other classmen there. So I just feel like it’s a great opportunity there.”
Plus, Penn State preferred walk-ons don’t seem to be like other PWOs, from both Fitzgerald and Spalding coach Kyle Schmitt’s perspective.
Some schools offer those to athletes just to collect them, Schmitt said, but the attention Penn State gave Fitzgerald seemed a step, or several, beyond. The Spalding coach predicts the Nittany Lions may redshirt Fitzgerald to give him a year to develop before deploying him.
“I’ll just put my head down and work. That’s all there is to it,” Fitzgerald said.
That journey to varsity isn’t unknown to Fitzgerald. He arrived at Whittles Field as a sophomore as a junior varsity player. When he was called up his junior season, Fitzgerald then only had two games to play in fall 2020, as coronavirus cut Spalding’s season abruptly short.
As such, Fitzgerald only really played 13 varsity games. Spalding pillaged the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference en route to a 10-1 season, stopped short only in the semifinal.
In every game prior, the offense blazed — and right at the heart of it were linemen like Fitzgerald.
“There’s sometimes big guys like him aren’t scholarship players at a Penn State or Maryland. There’s this idea that maybe they’re not athletic, not tough, they’re soft. Jim is none of those,” Schmitt said.
Schmitt believes the pandemic complicated an already complex recruiting system, both empowering the transfer portal as a popular tool by college athletes and elsewise. That, from Schmitt’s perspective, likely affected Fitzgerald.
But it did not affect his mentality. There are few that train harder in the weight room, per the coach, that have that willingness to grow. His long arms, frame and explosiveness on the field don’t hurt either. It’s for those reasons Fitzgerald played more snaps in 2021 than anyone on the Cavaliers roster.
“I think there’s an opportunity for him to really grow in the program and be in a big time program where he can really succeed,” Schmitt said. “The walk-ons that make it are really persistent, and he’s got that in him.”
Fitzgerald’s already armed with an important lesson as well. Hype and opinion envelop Penn State all year long and that can warp young player’s minds. But Fitzgerald got a taste of that this past year as Spalding’s status rose. He also understood that sometimes all that hype can lead to disappointment, and that you must just keep working.
“You can’t let it get to your head,” Fitzgerald said. “This year, we really just took a mindset where we grind in silence.”