Zwinak bowls over team, self, as starter

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Zach Zwinak speaks in a hushed voice, as if he's talking to schoolchildren. He crosses his arms, uncrosses his arms, and fidgets as though his cowboy boots are a size too small.

News conferences aren't the domain for this soft-spoken redshirt sophomore. He seems shy and hesitant in front of a dozen people. But put him in shoulder pads and hand him a helmet and he seems like the second coming of Tony Hunt as he steps on the gridiron -- even if he does perform for crowds larger than his hometown.

"When you get on the field, the fans are there, but I tend to tune them out. I'm always nervous. Coming into a game, I'm a nervous kind of guy," said Zwinak, who hails from Frederick, Md. (pop: 66,129). "But once the game starts, I don't notice anything anymore. It's just playing football like you have your whole life."

Zwinak's parents nudged him into football by the age of 8, after the shy redhead sprinted around the soccer field and continually knocked over his opponents. Zach didn't mean to; he just tended to focus on the ball and often bee-lined toward it -- and into whomever stood between it and him.

Substitute that soccer ball for the end zone, and Zwinak's mentality hasn't changed much. He'll run through and over his opponents, straight-arm or juke, to get nearer to that first-down marker. In his last 96 carries, he hasn't once been tackled behind the line of scrimmage. Zwinak's opponents might stand a better chance slowing a locomotive.

"Oh, his success doesn't surprise me," said Rich Conner, his high school coach. "He changed the way we did things. Our two-minute offense was the fullback trap. Give it to Zach, and he would go 60 yards. 'Code Red.' It was a great play."

Zwinak, a bruising 232-pound tailback, didn't enter this season as the starter. Or as the backup. Or the backup's backup. Or as the ... well, you get the idea. When Silas Redd transferred to USC and Penn State coach Bill O'Brien watched four other tailbacks crumple to the turf with injuries, Zwinak's number was finally called. In the second half against Temple, there was no one else left.

Zwinak, a throwback runner who uses no gloves ("I have more trust in my bare hands."), rushed for 94 yards in that half. He leaned against a white wall after the game, his arms tucked behind his back, and smiled nervously as reporters crowded around him.

"I was fortunate," he told them.

The man of few words publicly deflected talk of prior frustrations. But, Conner and Zwinak's mother said, Zach wondered before that game when he might get his chance. O'Brien swore he'd get one, and Zwinak was eager to show he wasn't a fullback or a converted linebacker.

He belonged at tailback.

"He was very frustrated," said his mother, Diane Thomas. "He probably wouldn't admit that, but he was frustrated. We all kind of were. But give those coaches credit. They told him they were going to give him more carries -- and they did. I'm not surprised that he's been able to do so well."

Those closest to Zach aren't shocked he has nearly outrushed Redd this season, and that's because of Zach's mentality. Whenever he was overlooked or didn't succeed, he'd just try harder and go faster. In Little League, when Zwinak stepped to the plate, the opposing coach allowed his team to play shallow. Zwinak ended up smacking a one-hopper that hit the fence for an inside-the-park home run.

And during Monday practices at Linganore High School, Zwinak played as though he were under the bright lights of Friday. He'd sprint through walkthroughs, and Conner was forced to enlist two seamstresses because the redhead's jersey constantly tore.

"He was always the dirtiest one there," Conner said. "He'd have grass stains and mud from his elbow to his knees. He played football the way it's supposed to be played."

Even now, Zwinak's roots are evident. During Wednesday's practice, he stretched with a large rip on the right side of his white jersey. Seven minutes into non-contact drills, his white knee pad was already smeared with shades of green and brown.

And when he stumbled during position drills, the meek player spiked the football, bouncing over Charles London's head before returning to the line and correcting the mistake.

"He's definitely a tough, physical guy," linebacker Glenn Carson said. "He's a kid who keeps on bringing it and doesn't give up."

Zwinak has surpassed his own expectations. He has exceeded O'Brien's projections. And, with two more seasons left, his career is just getting started.

Just don't ask him to talk about it.

"I guess I do some talking, but I'm not too much of a talker," he said. "I just play my game."