Key fumbles not deterring Zwinak

UNIVERSITY PARK – What’s the first thing that comes to mind for Penn State fans when you think of Zach Zwinak?

It’s probably not his four straight 100-yard games to end last season.

Probably not his 563 yards rushing in those four games, compared to Bill Belton’s 336 yards.

Probably not that he outgained Belton by 186 yards on the ground for the season.

Oh, and almost certainly not Zwinak’s 115 consecutive carries without a fumble in his final five games.

Despite Zwinak’s unquestioned productivity, his costly fumbles against Central Florida and Michigan last season remain burned in many fans’ memories.

The Nittany Lions might have been able to beat UCF had he not lost a fumble down 10 in the fourth quarter. His fumble early in the third quarter against Michigan was returned for a TD and let the Wolverines get back in the game, although PSU wound up winning.

The fascinating thing about Zwinak’s season was that he had only one other fumble – in a blowout loss to Ohio State – and appeared to correct his problems late in the year.

Still, his reputation as being unreliable with the ball has been tough for Zwinak to shake.

“People are either going to love you or hate you,” the senior said when asked if fans have somewhat of a misconception about him. “That’s the nature of this game. However people see me is fine. What really matters is how the coaches see me and how I see myself.”

Former coach Bill O’Brien got fed up at times with Zwinak’s fumbling, which opened doors for Belton to get more playing time. Ironically, Belton had just as many fumbles – three – as Zwinak did last season, and all of those came in his final four games.

With PSU’s new coaching staff, Zwinak gets sort of a do-over – which is good in some ways but not so good in others.

“I heard some things about (Zwinak’s fumbling issues), but we didn’t see it in the spring,” offensive coordinator John Donovan said. “We’ve emphasized it with those guys. They know that can’t happen, and it didn’t happen in the spring much at all.”

That bodes well for Zwinak’s chances at being the starting tailback this season. If he can hang onto the ball, he has proven time and again that he can do damage.

The flipside, though, is that James Franklin wants a fast team, with lots of speed at every position. Because of that, the prevailing thought is that the quicker, shiftier Belton will get the first crack at the job over the powerhouse Zwinak.

Not that it really matters much who starts, since Franklin has said repeatedly that all three tailbacks will get opportunities, including Akeel Lynch.

“Ultimately you’d like to be able to figure out who does what better than the other guy,” Donovan said about comparing the tailbacks. “Hopefully they can do similar things so you don’t have to change too much when one guy’s in there or not. I think they’re different, but at the same time they can run the same things.

“We’ll see who gets that first snap as we go, and does he deserve the majority of the snaps or does he just deserve the first snap and they alternate.”

Just like Franklin, the offensive coordinator sees plenty of opportunities for both Zwinak and Belton, regardless of who starts.

“They’ve both played a lot of ball, and they’re both seniors and I think they’re both due to have great years,” Donovan said.

The Lions have a questionable offensive line, which could favor Zwinak because of his ability to power through defenders and create his own holes. Then again, Belton’s speed could give him the advantage because of his ability to bounce outside if things break down at the point of attack.

Zwinak’s stamina has been on full display the past two years, and he seems to be perfectly suited for the late-season grind in the Big Ten. He not only had four straight 100-yard games to end last year, he had the same number at the end of 2012, including a career-high 179-yard effort on 36 carries against Wisconsin to close out the season.

Zwinak made a key adjustment last season to correct his fumble issues when he began wearing gloves, which he also plans to do this year. There will be another change that he will have to get used to, which is a new running style implemented by running backs coach Charles Huff.

It’s called “chin,” and it’s all about running more upright. The theory behind it is that it gives the running back better balance and helps his ability to hang onto the ball.

Huff believes Zwinak’s style led to him fumbling more, going so far as to say some backs are “asking for a fumble” with the way they carry the ball.

Zwinak has developed his running style throughout his entire football-playing life, and it has helped him achieve great success.

Except for the fumbles.

Now he has to find a way to incorporate the new style with everything else he does well.

“Old habits die hard,” Zwinak said. “I think (the chin style) is effective, but it’s hard to make sure to continue to do every time because it is a new thing you’re trying to learn. You’ve done something your whole life, and now all of a sudden you’ve got to change it, it’s hard.”