If Zach Zwinak were an ice cream flavor, he’d be vanilla.
If you’re expecting audacious displays of emotion and colorful quotes, you’ve got the wrong guy.
But after one surprising season in the spotlight, Penn State football fans know they can count on a couple of things from the redshirt junior running back — to run the ball with power and fury and to punish anyone that comes between him and the goal line.
The great expectations this season are a long way from what they were for the 6-foot-1, 240-pounder last fall.
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Back then about all folks knew about the Frederick, Md., native was that his name was last on the Penn State roster and that there were several names between his and a starting spot on the depth chart.
While he rushed for more than 2,000 yards as a high school senior, Zwinak was recruited by former coach Joe Paterno’s staff as a fullback. In Paterno’s system, the fullback’s job was to block, get an occasional carry or catch a swing pass out of the backfield.
Zwinak didn’t get to do much of that his first two seasons. He suffered a knee injury as a freshman and had a handful of carries in mop-up time for a total of 13 yards as a redshirt freshman.
But following that season, Bill O’Brien took over the program. O’Brien brought in an offense that didn’t have a lot of use for the fullback and relied more on two and three tight end sets.
Zwinak entered the season behind Bill Belton, Derek Day, Michael Zordich and Curtis Dukes in the race to start at running back.
Prospects didn’t look good for Zwinak, but opportunity came calling and Zwinak was ready to answer.
He became a poster child for O’Brien’s “next man up” philosophy when injuries opened up playing time.
Belton was dinged up in the season-opener. Day couldn’t stay healthy. Dukes was sidelined with academic issues and left the program after the season. In Game 4 against Temple, Zordich had to come out after tweaking his knee.
Given his chance to shine, Zwinak rolled off the bench and pounded the Owls for 94 yards on 18 carries in the second half of a 23-14 win.
And he kept on chugging, setting career highs six times over the final nine games. He became the sledgehammer in a diverse offense that would average more than 29 points per game.
While Belton would return to start four games, Zwinak led the squad in rushing in three of those. He took over as starter the last four games and flourished, racking up more than 130 yards in each. The bruiser’s big year culminated with a 179-yard performance in an emotional 24-21 overtime victory over Wisconsin to end the season.
Zwinak finished with an even 1,000 yards on 203 carrries — an average of nearly five yards every time he touched the ball — and six rushing scores. In his four starts, he averaged more than 147 yards.
With such an outstanding season, you’d think Zwinak would expect the starting job is his coming into fall camp.
But ask him about his expectations and you’ll hear that Zwinak expects nothing, save one thing.
“It’s not any different,” Zwinak said of comparing this season’s camp to a year ago. “Every day, you still have to come out and work hard and give your best effort. If you don’t, you lose your position. Every day you’ve just got to work hard and put forth effort to get better.”
But, c’mon, Zach. You are one of about two dozen players in school history to ring up 1,000 yards and you did it mostly in nine games and shared some time in those.
Shouldn’t you deserve a little job security?
“Every year you come in, work hard and put forth effort every day,” Zwinak said. “Nothing is ever going to change. That’s how it’s got to be, regardless of what status you hold on the team.”
About the only special treatment he’s getting is on his left hand. He broke it on an early carry in the Blue-White scrimmage in April.
When media saw him during an open practice last Thursday, Zwinak had his left hand taped and he wore a red jersey indicating to defenders to avoid contact with him.
Still, Zwinak participated in fumble drills and took handoffs.
While he referred all medical questions to O’Brien, Zwinak responded with one word on whether he’d be ready for the season opener Aug. 31 against Syracuse.
O’Brien says he is planning to use three running backs throughout the season, Zwinak, the speedy Belton and redshirt freshman Akeel Lynch.
“There’s three of them. They’re all going to play. And Zwinak is doing fine,” O’Brien said when asked about the team’s running back situation on Media Day.
Zwinak believes the combination could be difficult to stop.
“We all have different aspects to our game,” he said. “I guess I’m the bigger back. Bill is a small, shifty kind of guy and Akeel is a little bit in between.”
Zwinak is looking forward to his second season in O’Brien’s offense. The coach said the team just scratched the surface of his playbook last fall.
“Being the second year in, everything is a lot easier now,” Zwinak said. “Being that we’ve run it for a year, we understand the schemes better. It’s easier to continue practice and to improve those particular things because we’ve got the basics down.”
Zwinak says he’s focused on a wide variety of improvements he’s looking to make in his game — catching, route running, footwork, strength and speed.
“Everything,” he said simply. “O’Brien always preaches the next level — where are we going to push our game to.”
As opponents will attest, Zwinak is pretty good at pushing people around.
And he’s happy to have a chance to do that again.
“I feel great,” Zwinak said. “The team feels great. We’re all working hard and having a good time. We’ve been waiting for this for months.”