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Zwinak a load for defenders, and a big weapon for PSU's young QBs
August 28, 2013 - Cory Giger
UNIVERSITY PARK -- Zach Zwinak really does play smash-mouth football, and somewhere out in the world is a crushed face mask to prove it.
Zwinak ran over countless defenders last season on his way to 1,000 yards and an average of 4.9 yards per carry. Almost impossible to stop in his tracks when he builds up a head of steam, Zwinak was such a big surprise for Penn State in 2012 that he actually made the college coach of the year look bad.
"Judging by the fact that I had him as the third- or fourth-team running back at the beginning of the year, I would say that that's some bad coaching," PSU's Bill O'Brien said, "because I think in about, whatever it was, 8 1/2 games, he gained 1,000 yards."
Or, put another way, 95 more yards than former Nittany Lion running back Silas Redd gained at USC.
The quintessential Zwinak moment wasn't widely known until Tuesday, when linebacker Glenn Carson shared an intriguing story from last year.
The equipment manager of one opponent -- no one seems to remember which team it was -- sent a picture of a safety's face mask that had been caved in when Zwinak hit him.
"I have seen the picture … but I don't really remember it," Zwinak, who seems to hate talking about himself or his impressive 2012 season, said during a teleconference Wednesday.
Penn State has numerous weapons on offense, but when all is said and done, Zwinak could turn out to be the biggest asset for a team with a young, unproven quarterback.
As the old saying goes, two of the three things that can happen when you throw the football are bad. Hand it off to Zwinak, on the other hand, and the outcome is pretty much guaranteed for the Lions.
He's going to pick up positive yardage.
"He's a load," Carson said. "He's a big guy, he runs behind his pads and he's definitely a tough, physical player."
Asked to explain what it means to run behind his pads, Carson added, "He's not afraid to put his shoulder pads down, his helmet down and try to run someone over."
That's the best safety valve possible for quarterbacks Christian Hackenberg and Tyler Ferguson. There are others on the team, of course, such as talented tight ends and receivers, but having a brute, forward-churning tailback provides a great option for a young quarterback.
Zwinak carried the ball 203 times last season, and in all of those, he only lost 7 yards.
Trying to arm tackle him is useless, and his ability to escape would-be tacklers time after time starts to wear on them.
"That can deflate a defense if you miss a tackle," PSU defensive tackle DaQuan Jones said of Zwinak's ability to keep driving forward.
College football doesn't keep a stat on yards after contact, and Zwinak didn't bother guessing how many he had when asked. But it was certainly a lot.
"It's always falling forward," he said. "If you're going to go down, go down forward, never fall back."
Zwinak loves contact. And he seeks it out.
Even when he was wearing a red no-contact jersey early on in training camp -- from a left wrist injury suffered during the spring -- he would go looking for defenders to hit. They couldn't hit him back, which they thought was unfair, so O'Brien removed the red jersey.
"Zach's a tough guy," O'Brien said. "I love coaching Zach. He's very hard on himself. He demands perfection of himself. He's tough, he's a big guy, he can run, he's got deceptive speed, and you know, he can catch the ball."
Zwinak had 20 catches for 177 yards last season, making him the kind of dual threat that the quarterbacks will love even more.
The only negative to Zwinak's 2012 season was that he fumbled five times. For a perfectionist, as Zwinak readily admitted he is, that had to eat away at him.
"We work ball security every single day," he said of practice. "It's one of the most important things as a running back. … Coach [Charles] London has a bunch of different drills that we do, and it involves somebody hitting on you and wrestling the ball away from you."
If Zwinak can correct the fumble-itis and continue to bulldoze over defenders, it will give Penn State's quarterbacks extra confidence to know that they don't have to do it all on offense.
Zwinak also has backups Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch to take some of the carries -- and pressure -- from him, keeping him fresher for big carries in late-game situations. That should make him even tougher to bring down.
"He's a great running back," guard Miles Dieffenbach said, "and he really helps you out breaking all those tackles and breaking through the arm tackles."