Franklin Regional grad Zanotto helping Duquesne contend for NEC title
Linebacker Brett Zanotto was the cream of the crop coming out of Franklin Regional a few years ago.
First-team all-state, first-team all-conference, Zanotto was first-team all everything, setting school records on his way out the door.
To those who were plugged into to football program, it came as no surprise that scouts from Division I football programs were showing up at Panthers football games. After all, some scouting services had him as the No. 2-ranked middle linebacker in the state during his senior season.
In short, Zanotto was living the dream that every little boy has imagined from the moment they strapped on pads and jogged onto the football field.
Syracuse, Boston College and nearly every Mid-American Conference football program offered the 6-foot-1, 215-pounder. Pitt liked him as a fullback but he was born to play linebacker at the next level.
Zanotto decided to sign with one of the Big Ten’s newest members at the time — Maryland. But a coaching change following his freshman season had him re-evaluate.
“I left because of a coaching change that they had,” Zanotto said. “Things didn’t work out the way I wanted.”
What Zanotto, now a redshirt junior, was looking for was a lot closer to home. He valued his education just as much, if not, a little more than football. So, Duquesne it was.
“Duquesne is a great academic school,” said Zanotto, who is an integrated marketing and communications major. “It was really the perfect fit for me.”
It ’s safe to say that Duquesne coach Jerry Schmitt and his coaching staff were more than delighted to hear the news Zanotto was looking to become a Duke. The Franklin Regional to Duquesne football pipeline has supplied some standout players in the past, most recently another former linebacker in Carter Henderson.
“We knew about him in high school and when the opportunity came for him to come to Duquesne, we were ecstatic about it because we knew the player he was,” said Schmitt, who is in 14th season as the Dukes coach. “Sometimes when we offer a player and they get an offer from a bigger school, we kind of back off.”
Zanotto quickly reminded everyone on the Duquesne coaching staff why so many schools were after him coming out of high school. It was during spring practice and the team’s first day in pads. Zanotto lined up at his middle linebacker spot, guessed the quarterback’s snap count correctly, took a running dive over the offensive line and blew up the play. The play was an eyeopener for everyone on the field that day.
“We run this play and all of the sudden out of the corner of my eye I see someone come flying over the line of scrimmage, in the air, and tackles the running back 3 yards behind the line of scrimmage,” Schmitt said. “At the time, I didn’t know what number they put him in, and I walked over (to defensive coordinator) Dave Opfar and asked who was that and he said that was Brett.
“That was the wow factor for me and that set him above some of the guys that I’ve had here, and we’ve had some pretty good linebackers here.”
Nobody is saying if Zanotto was offside or not, but it was vintage for a kid from Pittsburgh who grew up watching former Steeler Troy Polamalu torture offenses time-and-time again with the same style of play.
“He’s old school, tough, fast and has a sense for the game as it’s going on,” Schmitt said.
Zanotto has not let up since that spring practice. He anchors a Duquesne (7-3, 4-1) defense that ranks fourth in the Northeast Conference in total defense and third in rushing defense. Zanotto is tops on the team and ranks sixth in the NEC with 69 tackles through 10 games.
“He knows what he’s doing,” linebackers coach Scott Farison said. “The great ones don’t over think. He’s an extension of all the coaches.”
With the Dukes’ 28-24 win over NEC conference rival Sacred Heart, Zanotto and his teammates are in the hunt for a NEC championship and spot in the NCAA Division I FCS football bracket.
“I’m just trying to go out there and make everyone better,” Zanotta said. “Whatever I can do out there to help the team, I’ll do whatever.”
William Whalen is a freelance writer.