PSU's Zwinak on a collision course
UNIVERSITY PARK — The only thing Zach Zwinak hates more than being tackled? It just might be not being allowed to be tackled.
Penn State's 240-pound bruiser of a redshirt junior running back isn't easy to bring down. Ask the collateral damage in the form of opponents' facemasks or defensive teammates who grow weary of colliding with him in practice.
After reaching 1,000 rushing yards last season despite having just three carries over the first three games, Zwinak sustained a wrist injury during the spring Blue-White Game. Not fully healed by the time fall camp began earlier this month meant Zwinak was wearing a red “no-contact” jersey for practice.
Zwinak and “no contact,” though, simply aren't synonymous. Months of rehab? The easy part for Zwinak. When it came time to practice and would-be tacklers shied away from him?
“That,” Zwinak said, “was frustrating.”
So Zwinak ignored the “no contact” edict. Penn State's defensive players couldn't touch him – but he wasn't going to stop bulldozing them.
After defensive backs alerted coach Bill O'Brien that, by his actions, Zwinak was proving healthy enough for contact, Zwinak's restrictions were lifted.
“I don't think I was playing to the role of the red jersey,” Zwinak said flatly.
A head-down, straight-ahead, punishing runner, Zwinak established himself as one of the most productive backs in the Big Ten.
Zwinak averaged 110.9 rushing yards over the final nine games of last season and 113 yards in conference games. He also caught 20 passes and had seven touchdowns.
His most telling 2012 statistic was an unofficial one: Opponents' facemasks broken. No one could recall the exact game, but several Penn State players this week said an opposing team's equipment manager sent the Lions' a photo of a damaged facemask that was the result of a Zwinak collision with a defensive back.
“He's a load, a big guy who runs behind his pads, and he's definitely a tough, physical player,” said Penn State linebacker Glenn Carson, who is Zwinak's rough equivalent on defense.
“It's fun playing against him. He's competitive, he works hard… It's good to have him
in practice for what he does for me. I enjoy it when a running back tries to run you
Zwinak speaks with clear disdain when asked about the trend in football rules toward safety and away from hitting, as he was Wednesday. He has such an innate intensity that when he categorically told O'Brien he'd be ready for the season immediately after learning of the severity of his spring wrist injury, no one was about to question him.
“No matter what happened, I was going to work hard enough to play because I wanted to play,” Zwinak said, coolly and confidently.
The son of two former college athletes — father, B.J., was a defensive tackle at Virginia Tech — Zwinak has endeared himself to teammates with his no-nonsense, throwback style.
“Ever since I've known him he's always been a hard worker with a great work ethic,” said safety Malcolm Willis, who like Zwinak is from Maryland.
Zwinak quickly seized the opportunity to become a featured back after a series of injuries and ineffectiveness left O'Brien turning to him for the fourth game last season. O'Brien joked Tuesday that it was “bad coaching” to wait that long.
This season, Zwinak enters as the unquestioned No. 1 running back, although the Lions plan on using speedsters Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch.
“Zach's a tough guy; I love coaching Zach,” O'Brien said. “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 he can catch the ball. He loves playing at Penn State.
“He's a big part of our team.”
Chris Adamski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.