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By Lori Shontz Blue White Illustrated
Some people looked at Zach Zwinak and saw a linebacker. Understandable. In youth league football, he was too big to play with his age group, and by the time he reached high school, his coach barely needed anyone else on the kickoff coverage team. Zwinak was always the first to get to the returner, and he always made the tackle.
Others saw a fullback. Again, understandable. Zwinak is what you'd call solid, his 6-foot-1, 235-pound body the type that, when it moves, generally requires verbs like bulled, churned or rumbled.
But Zwinak was adamant. He would tackle, sure, and block when necessary. But what he wanted to play was tailback.
"He always wanted to carry the ball," said his mother, Diane Thomas. "That was his desire."
Still is. Said center Matt Stankiewich, "I never saw anyone who wants to run the football more than he does."
And the reason that works is that in addition to his strength and love for the game, Zwinak has a more elusive trait: speed.
It's what enabled him to rush for more than 2,000 yards as a high school senior, and what catapulted him from fourth on Penn State's depth chart at last season's start to its 14th 1,000-yard runner by the end. He was strong enough to blast through an opponent's defensive line, speedy enough to outrun the secondary and productive enough that Silas Redd's decision to transfer was less of a blow than expected.
Not that Zwinak wants to talk about much of that. Like a lot of running backs, he's always quick to give credit to the offensive line, but he's one of the few who, while doing it, smiles shyly and occasionally blushes.
"I don't really know how to describe any of my running," he said. "I just try to go in a straight line. That's what I was always taught - the fastest way to the end zone is in a straight line."
Good genes have helped, too. Zwinak's father, B.J., played defensive tackle at Virginia Tech, lettering three times. His mother ran track at North Carolina, twice winning the Atlantic Coast Conference 110-meter hurdle title.
"He gets his determination from his dad and his speed from his mom," said Rich Conner, who coached Zwinak at Linganore High School in Mt. Airy, Md. "Let's put it that way. We've had some tough guys here, but at the top of the list is Zach."
Toughness came naturally. Like most athletic boys, Zwinak tried a bunch of sports. A little basketball, a little wrestling, a little soccer. "He was too rough for soccer," his mother said, and that's how he ended up on the football field around age 9.
Said Thomas, "He was obviously cut out for it."
Zwinak immediately wanted to carry the ball, and he quickly made believers of his coaches - youth league, JV, varsity. Said Conner, "He made us look like good coaches."
Conner can't remember Zwinak ever losing a yard; he always kept moving forward. And he particularly remembers a 90-yard touchdown in a regional championship game in which Zwinak stiff-armed two defenders, including one who went on to play at Maryland, and got the angle and dived into the end zone.
Still, recruiting services labeled Zwinak a fullback, and plenty of colleges recruited him to play linebacker. Conner said Penn State told Zwinak it had plenty of linebackers, and that he could come in as a running back. And Penn State was only a couple of hours from home, too.
Zwinak was sold.
"He had been to Virginia Tech, where his father played, and that's where everybody thought he would go," Thomas said. "But he decided that he liked Penn State better. And he could get in his truck and drive home. He does like to come home."
Zwinak arrived at Penn State in 2010 and redshirted. He tore his ACL in practice partway through the season, and returned a year later, playing in two games and gaining 7 yards. His name wasn't particularly well known.
Then came the NCAA sanctions, and Redd's transfer. Zwinak's name still barely popped up as an option at tailback for Penn State, although he did field some calls from schools wondering if he wanted to transfer, too.
But Zwinak texted Conner and said: "Coach, we still get to have this season." He was just happy that the NCAA hadn't taken away the entire season, and that didn't surprise his high school coach at all.
"That's how he his," Conner said. "Some people wake up in the morning, they want to do well on a test. Or do something in the community. A lot of times, Zach's first thought is football. He wants to know, 'What can I do to get better?' That's what makes him tick."
Gradually, Zwinak made his way up the depth chart. At first, he got only a few carries a game. Then he began spelling the starter, Bill Belton, gaining 100 yards or more twice, and coming just 6 yards short against Temple, the first game in which he saw significant time. He started the last four games, gaining more than 100 yards each time.
And in the season finale against Wisconsin, Zwinak carried a career-high (dating back to youth league) 36 times for 179 yards, bringing his season total to exactly 1,000.
"He's surpassed where he was," coach Bill O'Brien said in mid-November, acknowledging that Zwinak wasn't high on the coaching staff's radar after spring practice. "He came out there and really did a nice job of doing what we coached him to do. He's a tough kid. He can run; he's faster than people think he is. And there are things he needs to get better at."
Namely, holding onto the football. Although he carries the ball with two hands - something his high school coaches drilled into him when defenders decided the only way to stop him was to slap the ball out of his hands - Zwinak still had a tendency to fumble.
"I've got to continue to grow as a player and make sure I continue to hold onto it on every play," he said. "As a learning player, you have to make sure you remember everything, and there's so much going on, you have to remember every little thing on every play. That's the No. 1 thing, but that's the easiest to forget, sometimes, when there's so much going on."
After the season, Conner teased Zwinak about being the lowest-ranked 1,000-yard rusher in Penn State history.
"And then I said, 'Now, your goal should be to be the lowest 2,000-yard rusher in school history,' " Conner said. "That's the next step. We talk about setting goals, achieving goals, resetting goals. He's gotta reset some goals and work toward them. I think Zach will do that."
And he will do it at Penn State. Thomas said her son hasn't received calls from other schools - or, at least, he hasn't told her about them - and Zwinak, after the Wisconsin game, said he intends to remain a Nittany Lion.
"I came to a decision to stay this year, and that was a decision to stay through the end," he said. "I'm not going to stay one-and-done. I made the commitment, and I'm going to finish it out."