Two things happen when Zach Zwinak carries the ball: He crashes into defenders, and they go backwards.
Zwinak is the epitome of a downhill runner, and even when defenders appear to have him stopped in his tracks, Penn State's powerful running back is able to bulldoze his way forward for an additional 2 or 3 yards. It happened time after time last season, when he gained 1,000 yards on 203 carries (4.9 per attempt) for the Nittany Lions.
Perhaps his most impressive stat, though, was that in his 203 carries, his combined total of negative rushing yardage for the entire season was only 7 yards. Some running backs lose much more than that on a few bad carries in one game, but when Zwinak got the ball, he showed great ability to power his way forward even when there was little or no room to run.
Zach Zwinak returns to the Penn State backfield this fall.
Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski
Zwinak also proved to be a good receiver out of the backfield last season, catching 20 passes for 177 yards.
While Zwinak has the ability to run over defenders, Penn State's coaches have been prompting him this spring to try and be more elusive and run around them.
"Big hits are obviously part of the game, but we have to avoid running into a lineman or something and avoid blatantly running into somebody when you have the open field in front of you," Zwinak said Wednesday.
Running backs coach Charles London has been working on that aspect with Zwinak, who shot his way up the depth chart last season even though he opened the campaign behind both Bill Belton and Derek Day.
Zwinak said London has been emphasizing "whenever I can to try to avoid a bigger hit to increase longevity and to keep my body healthy throughout the whole season."
Zwinak shouldn't have to carry as much of the burden in the running game this season, and at this point there's no guarantee he will be the first-team tailback from week to week. Coach Bill O'Brien said the competition in the backfield between Zwinak, Belton and redshirt freshman Akeel Lynch will play out every day in practice, and all three are expected to see significant action this fall.
"We have three running backs that have all competed very, very hard," O'Brien said before later adding, "We're going to play all three of those guys. It goes back to depth. I don't think that you're just going to play one guy all year. Wherever I've been, the most successful running games I've been around have rotated backs."
Zwinak doesn't have any issues with sharing time or carries, and he even said that watching the shiftier Belton and Lynch "teaches me a lot about avoiding people."
Belton was the first-string tailback to start last season but suffered an ankle injury in the opener against Ohio and never became the lead runner PSU was hoping for and expecting. He finished with 263 yards on 60 carries and was a non-factor late in the season after falling out of favor with O'Brien.
Belton doesn't seem to be in O'Brien's doghouse this spring.
"Billy Belton, I believe, is a much-improved player," the coach said. "He's lost some weight, he moves quicker."
The coaches wisely avoided playing Lynch last year, deciding early on to redshirt the talented freshman. Zwinak's emergence as a dominant tailback negated the need to push Lynch into service and burn the redshirt, and now Lynch is ready to push Zwinak and Belton for playing time.
"Akeel Lynch has improved every single day of spring practice," O'Brien said.