Curt Warner, Blair Thomas, Curtis Enis, Larry Johnson, Lydell Mitchell, D.J. Dozier, Matt Suhey.
Penn State football fans don’t need an explanation what those names have meant to the Nittany Lions program.
Some of the greatest running backs in school history could have some company soon.
That name is Zach Zwinak.
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If he continues at his pace the past two seasons, Zwinak will finish among those greats, surpassing a few.
The 6-foot-1, 233-pound bruiser has rushed for 1,989 yards over the last two campaigns. If he goes for 1,000 yards this season, he’ll move to seventh on the Nittany Lion career rushing list.
It would be quite an achievement for someone, who gained just seven yards in his first season and was an unknown third-stringer heading into his sophomore campaign.
“With the great players that have come through here, it would be awesome to be considered high up there,” the modest Zwinak said. “But at the same time I can’t focus on that because if I do I’m going to do something stupid. At the end of the season, I can look at that, but right now it’s come out, work hard and be the best running back that I can be.”
Zwinak and Bill Belton formed a potent one-two combination that rushed for 1,792 yards last season. Throw in Akeel Lynch (358 yards), who was slowed by a knee injury, and new coach James Franklin plans to use a rotation of at least three running backs this season.
Will Zwinak’s role remain the same?
“I honestly have no clue,” the Frederick, Md., native said. “I’m just going to come out this camp and work hard. As a running backs group, we’re going to work hard and it’s whatever the coaches decide to do. At any point, whoever gets in the game is going to produce.”
Zwinak doesn’t mind the competition with the other backs — he relishes it.
Belton brings speed to the table. Zwinak brings the power and Lynch has a combination of both.
“It’s always nice to have other guys, especially when they complement each other,” Zwinak said. “It also helps drive competition. You push each other when you do get out on the field to put up bigger numbers and bigger games.”
Zwinak has racked up the numbers. He has 11 100-yard games, tied for 10th on the school’s all-time list. He led the squad with 12 touchdowns last season.
While he would seem to be a proven commodity, Zwinak says he’s been working relentlessly on his game.
“It’s every aspect of the game,” he said. “Things that people might think I do well now, I can always get better. If you’re not getting better, you’re standing still and everybody else is passing you.”
One thing that has been of particular concern is fumbles. Zwinak had issues during the middle of last season which led to three turnovers.
Franklin and his staff has made it clear that fumbling problems will cost playing time.
“Putting the ball on the ground is not an option,” running backs coach Charles Huff said. “Those who do can’t play. It’s not fair to Penn State. It’s not fair to the other players. It’s not fair to the community.”
Huff has brought an NFL mentality to address the issue for the entire team.
He’s preaching “chin,” a different style of carrying the ball.
“The best way to say it is it’s how Tiki Barber used to run with it — straight up and down and vertical,” Zwinak said. “It will be exciting. I can’t wait to use it.”
Huff bristles when you mention that Zwinak had fumbling problems.
“I wouldn’t call them problems,” Huff said. “I’d call it a lack of teaching. We went back and looked at every fumble he’s had since he’s been here and it’s a lack of knowing what to do with the ball when you get it, how to receive a handoff and how to carry the ball. There are certain ways to carry the ball and you’re asking for a fumble. He had some of those issues.
“It’s been like beating your head against the wall all of your life with a problem you can’t solve,” Huff added. “It’s like being in math class and you don’t know the formula. The teacher comes over and says, ‘All you’ve got to do is this.’ Then the light comes on.”
Part of Zwinak’s solution last season was a switch to wearing gloves, which helped. He led the Nittany Lions in rushing over the last four games, with totals of 150, 149, 149 and 115 yards.
Gloves or no gloves this season?
“I’m going to leave it as a surprise,” Zwinak said. “Nah, just kidding. I’m going to probably wear them again this year just because I did last year.”
Huff said while most teams are using speedier tailbacks, there’s still plenty of room in the game plan for a power back.
“With the type of offenses that are being played, there aren’t so many playing with a ground-and-pound type of back,” Huff said. “I think what people don’t realize is that Zach is as athletic as some of the other guys that are here. He’s shifty. He just happens to be big and he has a real hard head. He’d rather run into you than around you.
“... A lot of people are looking for the 88-yard run. Those come few and far between. Its the twos, the fours, the sixes and the eights that really make a good back and the consistency to do that. That’s the consistency he gives us.”
Zwinak is hoping he can remain consistent and improve upon the numbers he’s put up the past two seasons.
Whatever happens, it’s been a crazy five-year journey that’s included playing for three full-time head coaches, an interim head coach and having to deal with NCAA sanctions for the Sandusky scandal.
“It’s been a wild ride,” Zwinak said. “It really has, a roller-coaster up-and down. At times, you feel like you’re going to fall off.
“Like my dad said, I should have kept a journal. I would have one hell of a story. It’s been exciting. You’ve faced adversity and you get through it. You get used to the changes. In the end, everyone who has been through it is stronger. ... As much of a headache as it’s been, it’s been also productive as a person to get through it.”
Zwinak is proud to have his degree in criminology and has learned much more out of the classroom. He’ll leave Penn State a mature adult.
“Just facing the adversity, you go into the workforce and something changes in a heartbeat,” he said. “You’re able to cope with and adjust. You definitely have experienced life lessons even though you’re only a college student. You grow up.”
Zwinak said he’s plenty of time to reflect on the past four years, but he’s pointed forward. If he sustains his play, he can join some of the program’s elite names in the record book.
“If you don’t look back where you came from, you lose who you are and lose the stuff that you do,” he said. “At the same time, you can’t spend too much time in the past. I have to focus on this year and continuing to improve my game. That’s what matters.”