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Thursday, May 14, 2009
Family matters for Wisniewski at Penn State

By ESPN.com staff
ESPN.com

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

When most players make a position change, they usually consult a coach for guidance or a teammate who has gone through a similar transition.

Stefen Wisniewski simply called his uncle.

Steve Wisniewski twice earned first-team All-America honors as a guard at Penn State. He went on to become an eight-time Pro Bowler in the NFL, primarily playing guard but also serving as a backup center for the Oakland Raiders.  

 
  Paul Spinelli/Getty Images
  Penn State guard/center Stefen Wisniewski has plenty of family advice to draw on to aid his position transition.
Not a bad resource for Stefen, who this spring made the shift from right guard to center at Penn State.

"It's one thing to have some family with some football experience," Stefen Wisniewski said, "but to have guys that played your same position, it's unbelievable because they know exactly what you're going through and they can give you tips based on what they did."

It's one of the perks of being a Wisniewski, especially at Penn State. Though the Paternos will always be the royal family in Happy Valley, the Wisniewskis are certainly part of the nobility. 

In addition to Steve, who played on Penn State's last national championship team in 1986, Stefen's dad Leo was a standout defensive tackle for the Nittany Lions from 1979-81. Stefen is next in line, and he moves into a greater leadership role along a new-look offensive line as he replaces Rimington Trophy winner A.Q. Shipley at center.

Having such a storied lineage at one program can heighten pressure on a player, but Wisniewski, a 6-3, 302-pound junior, doesn't see it that way. 

"It definitely motivates me to want to keep the name up and even try to one-up those guys," he said. "It's not real easy. They were both top-30 draft picks. My uncle was a two-time All-American, so it's going to take a lot, but I'm certainly going to try to and if not, at least keep the respect that the Wisniewski name has up here."

Wisniewski did his due diligence during the recruiting process, investigating other programs like Boston College and Michigan. But he naturally found himself comparing them to Penn State.

Ultimately, his choice became easy.

"Eventually it came to, I have to come here," he said, "partially because my family might disown me."

He's only half-joking.

At the start of recruiting, Leo was happy to take Stefen to other schools and explore the possibility of his son suiting up in colors other than blue and white. But before long, he was stumping for his alma mater.

"He went from being open-minded to completely biased and he started having all his old buddies call me, telling me why I should go to Penn State," Stefen said. "He made it real clear where he wanted me to go. I'm glad he did because I didn't want to go anywhere else."   

Former Penn State players Mike Munchak, Rich D'Amico and Chet Parlavecchio were among those who called Stefen.

As he transitioned to center this spring, he reached out again to Munchak, a former standout offensive lineman for Penn State, and former Pittsburgh Steelers tackle Tunch Ilkin, a friend and business associate of Leo's. But the wealth of resources can only help Stefen so much when he gets on the field. 

"It's a bigger change than I expected," said Wisniewski, who backed up Shipley at center last season. "You have less space to work with as a center because that D-lineman, he's literally inches away from you, as opposed to guard, when you have a couple of feet to work with. So because of that, a lot of the angles for blocks are different."

Unlike the guard spot, where he could immediately burst off the line and start blocking "downhill," Wisniewski now has to get deeper into the backfield before generating push on his blocks. Head coach Joe Paterno saw some growing pains this spring and wants the whip-smart Wisniewski -- a second-team Academic All-American last year -- not to over-think things. 

Wisniewski earned second-team All-Big Ten honors last year after starting 12 games at guard. In 2007, he became the first true freshman offensive lineman to start a game at Penn State since 1999.  

"He should be a real big-league center," Paterno said. "He's a very, very committed student, and every once in a while, it looks like he's thinking about his algebra class or something. But I think he'll be OK."

With new starters at both guard spots, Wisniewski knows it will take time for the line to fully jell.

"So much of what we do is combination blocks," he said. "We run a lot of zone-blocking schemes. You've got to get a feel for each other, when he's going to stay on a guy, when I'm going to go off the linebacker. That's something, we can practice it a lot, but until you're in games, you're never going to be where you want to be."