Colorado football center Hank Zilinskas reaping the rewards of 'old school' mentality

Oct 7, 2023; Tempe, Arizona, USA; Colorado Buffaloes center Hank Zilinskas (58) against the Arizona State Sun Devils at Mountain America Stadium.
Oct 7, 2023; Tempe, Arizona, USA; Colorado Buffaloes center Hank Zilinskas (58) against the Arizona State Sun Devils at Mountain America Stadium.

Hank Zilinskas is an old-school football player.

The transfer portal doesn't interest him. Running away from the grind isn't his style, either.

That's why it's no surprise to the people who know him best that the Colorado center stayed loyal to Deion Sanders and the Buffaloes this offseason. As the offensive line room completely transformed around him, with former teammates heading elsewhere and new talent coming in, Zilinskas knew it was all for the best.

In fact, it was expected. After Colorado quarterback Shedeur Sanders was pressured 24 times, hit 17 times, knocked down 13 times and sacked seven times in a loss to UCLA, his father made the solution clear.

“The big picture is you get new linemen,” Deion Sanders said after the loss to UCLA. “That’s the picture and I’m going to paint it perfectly.”

Deion Sanders doubled as an artist this offseason and showcased his painting skills by revamping the Buffs' offensive line with a handful of experienced transfers. Zilinskas is still in the picture, though.

He's one of just three returning Colorado offensive linemen who saw action last season.

"Having guys come in and out, it was expected with the performance we had last year," Zilinskas said. "I wasn't surprised by that or anything but I think there's a lot of good that comes from it. A lot of the guys who have transferred in have come from all over college football so they bring plenty of experience and different perspectives of what they saw where they played.

"For me to be able to learn from them and try to help them as well, I think it's very beneficial."

Despite the influx of transfer talent up front that could've overshadowed his development from year one to year two, Zilinskas stood out this spring and impressed the Buffs' coaching staff.

Colorado offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur praised Zilinskas' work ethic and resiliency last month.

"The first thing I like about Hank is, you know, it's easy now for guys to just pull the rip cord and take off," Shurmur said on April 25. "Hank was here a year ago, got some reps but then he watched this winter as we brought in like six guys around him. He didn't say anything, kept working, he was resilient, he's tough, he kept learning, he kept developing and he got bigger. He did all the things you want from a young man to develop.

"It's a credit to him and I think if we had to play a game tomorrow, he'd probably be the guy in there. It's kind of old school in my mind."

That's high praise from a man with 20-plus years of coaching experience in the NFL, but Shurmur clearly sees potential in the former Cherry Creek High School standout.

Zilinskas began playing center in his junior year at Cherry Creek and started 28 straight games without giving up a sack. As a senior, he anchored an offensive line that paved the way for 235 rushing yards per game as Cherry Creek won its fourth consecutive state championship.

The former three-star recruit was a consensus top-15 player in the state and the No. 21 center in the Class of 2023, according to ESPN. He ultimately chose Colorado over Colorado State, Kansas State, Nevada and others.

Zilinskas played in 11 games (two starts) for the Buffs last year as a true freshman and showed promise. He allowed just one sack on 104 pass-blocking attempts, according to Pro Football Focus, and wasn't penalized all season (142 offensive plays).

The early playing time was valuable and should pay dividends in 2024.

"Those two games I started in as well as the rest of the games that I played in were very beneficial to me," Zilinskas said. "When you first get to college, a lot of difficulties come with adjusting to the game and how it's different than it was in high school: the speed, the size, the strength, all that kind of stuff.

"It's your first year experiencing college ball and how it's played. I think now that I have a little bit of experience under my belt, it helps me understand what to expect this season."

Also working in Zilinskas' favor is the fact that a wealth of knowledge about the center position is just a phone call away.

His father, John, played center and blocked for Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman at UCLA. His older brother, Gus, started all 13 games at center for Rutgers last season and is projected to start again this fall. Even his younger brother, Ned, is a center at Cherry Creek and currently receiving offers to play college football.

"They probably play catch between their legs when they're at home, I mean, they're all centers," Shurmur joked last month. "There's four centers in the family, that has to be a record."

Hank also has the benefit of playing for a coach who started 89 games in the NFL on the offensive line.

Phil Loadholt was hired as Colorado's offensive line coach this offseason and has been tasked with leading the Buffs' new-look group up front. The former second-round draft pick by the Minnesota Vikings has been where Hank and his teammates want to be, making Loadholt easy to follow.

"Coach Phil is a great man, a great coach and he's very professional about how he approaches the game," Zilinskas said. "He's really brought a sense of overall professionalism. He's been where we are and he's gone beyond that and played where we all want to go. It's very helpful to get that experience as well as learn how to get there."

Zilinskas was focused on improving his strength, football IQ and overall technique this offseason. He says he's put on about 10-15 pounds of muscle and now weighs around 295-300 pounds after admitting he finished last season on the lighter side (285 pounds).

The sophomore center will likely trot out onto Folsom Field for the 2024 season opener as a starter. For the Colorado native, it's a dream come true.

"Ever since I was a little kid, playing for Colorado was one of my dreams," Hank said. "The decision to stay and keep working wasn't difficult for me. I'm in my home state and at CU, I have everything I could've ever wished for.

"I used to come up to watch games with my family and friends when I was a little kid. I used to be in the stands at Folsom cheering the Buffs on. It means a lot to me because I know there are young kids in that situation now that see us playing, feel inspired and they want to be Buffs, too. Just to be able to fulfill that dream and inspire others to do so, it means the world to me."

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This article originally appeared on Fort Collins Coloradoan: Colorado center Hank Zilinskas benefitting from 'old school' mentality