UNIVERSITY PARK — Silas Redd’s departure from Penn State left the Nittany Lions with a huge void at the running back position last summer. Zach Zwinak didn’t take long to fill it.
When Zwinak took a hold of the primary running back position four games into last season, the junior from Frederick, Md. did so in bullish fashion with punishing results for opponents. Now, 10 practices into Penn State’s spring program, the 6-foot-1, 234-pound Zwinak has been tabbed by coach Bill O’Brien as Penn State’s starter in the offensive backfield.
“I would say right now, if we broke the first huddle, probably Zwinak would get the first reps,” O’Brien said.
That’s what a 1,000-yard season and snarling running style can get you around here.
But there will be plenty of carries to go around and as O’Brien has learned throughout his career — the offenses that can depend on numerous running backs are always the most successful. After an early break-in period, the Nittany Lions did so last season as Bill Belton, Michael Zordich, Curtis Dukes and Derek Day all chipped in carries here and there.
And while Zwinak will get the bulk of the work early on, O’Brien is counting on Belton to return in better shape than last season and redshirt freshman Akeel Lynch to join the backfield rotation, too.
“We have three running backs that have all competed very, very hard,” O’Brien said. “Zwinak, Billy Belton, and Akeel Lynch. Each guy has improved. Each guy has practiced well. I have been very pleased with that position this spring.”
Penn State ranked ninth in the Big Ten in rushing offense last season. But the loss of Redd combined with injuries to Belton and Day prevented the Nittany Lions from getting their rushing attack going early. The Nittany Lions averaged just 107 yards per game over the first three outings compared to 157 yards per game the rest of the way.
That average spiked when Zwinak got the majority of the carries in the game against Temple. Then, Zwinak bulled his way for 94 yards on 18 carries. He’d turn in six 100-plus yard rushing performances in his next eight games.
The hard-nosed running of Zordich, who finished with 301 yards on 80 carries, helped soften defenses over the long haul while Dukes and Day added a combined 59 carries and 207 yards in relief duties. While Dukes is no longer with the program, Belton has returned. He’s looking leaner and quicker despite an injured toe that has kept him out of this week’s practices.
Belton, who switched to running back full time before last season after spending 2011 as a specialist in the previous coaching staff’s wildcat formation, is down to 199 pounds from the 202 to 205 range he played at last season. Then, ankle injuries plagued him early and stunted his transition into O’Brien’s new offense.
“Bill is a very shifty runner, very quick, very elusive,” Junior guard Miles Dieffenbach said. “He really is hard to tackle.”
And Belton showed glimpses of that skill in his most extended playing time last season. Against Iowa, Belton gave the Nittany Lions a 24-0 lead when he took a handoff on a stretch play and zipped through a hole for an 11-yard score. Later, he maneuvered his way though crowds to add touchdown runs of three and five yards in the rout.
“Billy Belton, I believe, is a much-improved player,” O’Brien said.
Lynch is in position to see his first collegiate playing time after redshirting last season. He brings a bigger frame to the Penn State backfield and at 6-feet, 214 pounds, could be a change-of-pace back to help spell Zwinak and Belton.
So far, his tendency to relish contact has helped him stand out to his teammates.
“He looks like he could be a great player,” center Ty Howle said of Lynch. “Physically, he’s a big guy, strong guy and I think he’ll be a great player.”
Penn State’s other option is sophomore Deron Thompson who has yet to carry the ball in a collegiate game.
Having three serviceable running backs with the option of a fourth could prove to be crucial for the Nittany Lions down the stretch as they found out last season.
“It’s really important,” Dieffenbach said. “The Big Ten is an extremely physical league, so guys get banged up and you never know what could happen. We’ve got to have a good guy in there to run the ball.”