The Zach Attack is Back

Penn State bulldozing RB Zwinak is ready to inflict more damage on opposing defenses in 2013. He has completely recovered from a wrist injury sustained in the spring.

Zach Zwinak's out-of-nowhere impact could be seen on the stat sheet, where in 2012 the double-wide tailback authored one of the more unlikely 1,000-yard seasons in Penn State history.

But it could also be seen in other ways, too.

“Actually,” middle linebacker Glenn Carson said, “we've seen a facemask of another team pretty much caved in.”

It belonged to some luckless safety, who wound up on the business end of one of Zwinak's punishing forays. Carson claims not to know the identity of the player or team. Same for Zwinak. But a photo of the facemask found its way into circulation, offering mute testimony of the way in which Zwinak goes about his business.

“It just shows,” Carson said, “he's not afraid to lower his pads and try to run someone over.”

No, that would never appear to be an issue for the 6-foot-1, 240-pound Zwinak.

“I have seen the picture,” he said Wednesday, during a conference call with reporters. “I don't remember much of the play. I didn't even know it happened until after the game.”

Nor did he seem overly excited about it, underscoring one of the more appealing aspects of his tale: The person least impressed with Zwinak seems to be Zwinak himself. He prefers to keep putting one foot in front of the other, prefers to keep plowing ahead. And woe to anyone who gets in his way.

He resurrected the Nittany Lions' running game in 2012, rushing for exactly 1,000 yards (and 4.9 a carry) despite barely playing in the first three and a half games and not starting until the ninth game, against Purdue. He showed surprising speed -- recall his 50-yard touchdown run at Nebraska -- and sure hands (20 catches), and after beginning last season as the fourth-stringer enters Saturday's season opener against Syracuse atop a crowded depth chart.

Which also doesn't impress him.

“Everything's the same,” he said. “You've got to come out every day, work hard and perform. Whatever play's called, you have to run your assignments and make sure you do everything you've got to do.”

He figures to split time with two other talented runners, Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch. He also figures to approach his job with as much diligence as ever.

“I love coaching Zach,” Bill O'Brien said Tuesday. “He's very hard on himself. He demands perfection of himself.”

Zwinak doesn't deny that. He said coaches have told him throughout his career he is his own toughest critic. Perhaps that is owing to his background. His dad, B.J., was a defensive lineman at Virginia Tech, and his mom, Diane Thomas, was a hurdler at the University of North Carolina.

As a high school competitor in Frederick, Md. (where Zach was also raised), Diane never lost a race. “When I would run,” she once told a newspaper in that city, “you would have to kill me to beat me. I was pretty ornery.”

The apple doesn't fall far from the tree. Nor does the opposing safety.

“My parents never forced me to play any sports or anything,” Zach said. “They let me do it all on my own. They never pushed me. They always advised me on how to work hard and how to be a good athlete, and always helped me through everything I was going through as an athlete, because they had been there before.”

And now, he said, “I'm hardest on myself. I just want to do everything right. That's how my dad has always taught me: Do it right the first time. And when that doesn't happen, I'm not very happy.”

He was, like his dad, a defensive lineman when he first started playing football as a youngster. He also played linebacker in high school, but most enjoyed playing running back.

He rushed for 1,447 yards as a junior at Linganore High in Frederick, when his team lost in the state final, then piled up 2,109 yards as a senior, when the Lancers won states. He chose PSU over Pitt, West Virginia, Virginia Tech and Maryland, but was largely inactive for two seasons.

A torn ACL suffered in October 2010 ensured a redshirt year, and he appeared in exactly two games in '11, carrying twice for seven yards.

Nor was much expected of him last fall. He rushed three times for two yards in the first three games, before injuries to Belton, Derek Day and Michael Zordich thrust him into the spotlight. He plowed for 94 yards against Temple, most of that in the second half, and followed that with consecutive 100-yard games, against Illinois and Northwestern.

He cracked 100 three more times down the stretch, capped by his 179-yard effort in the pulsating overtime victory over Wisconsin.

“His head is always facing the goal line when he gets tackled, if you noticed that,” O'Brien told reporters at Big Ten Media Days in Chicago, in late July. “It's never his butt facing the goal line. That's the mark of a good back: You get tackled, your head's facing the goal line, not the other way around.”

“I was taught through the years, always fall forward,” Zwinak said. “If you're going to go down, go down forward. Never fall back.”

And if you happen to fall on top of an opponent in the process, so be it.

“Football is a contact sport,” he said. “It's a fun game. All the rule changes, whether we all agree with them or not -- different players have different opinions -- everybody still gets to hit. It's just a matter of how you hit.”

There is a price to be paid for that. Zwinak had five fumbles last year, and in the Blue-White Game he suffered a serious wrist injury.

“The first time I saw Coach O'Brien (after being hurt), I told him I'd be ready for this week,” Zwinak said. “No matter what happened I was going to work hard and I was going to play. I want to play, and I was going to play.”

The injury was severe enough that he wore a red jersey in the early part of preseason drills, signaling that he was not to be hit. Zwinak found that frustrating, and soon enough he was back in regular garb.

“I don't think I was playing to the rules of the red jersey,” he said. “But it was nice to have it off and be back to normal.”

He knows not how the rotation with Belton and Lynch will work, and O'Brien said in Chicago that he wants to keep Zwinak healthy for the long haul.

“I think you've got to be careful, thinking this guy can go in there and carry the ball 30 times a game,” the coach said, “especially when you have some pretty good running backs at that position. But we're going to do what it takes to win. If Zwinak's on a roll and he's running the ball well, we're going to hand him the ball.”

Opposing equipment managers would do well to take note.

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