Past fades as Zwinak pushes forward
Dating back to the 2012 season, Penn State running back Zach Zwinak had started 10 games at the position leading into the team's Oct. 26 contest at Ohio State last season.
In that span, he'd racked up 11 touchdowns and 982 yards on 199 rushes, good for a 4.93 yards per carry average. Having cemented himself as a powerful runner with surprising speed, that Zwinak was Penn State's first tailback to touch the ball game in and out under O'Brien came as little surprise.
The catch, of course, came on the first play of the second half against Michigan at Beaver Stadium in front of the Nittany Lions' whiteout crowd. Owning a comfortable 21-10 lead and possession of the second half kickoff, the innocuous Christian Hackenberg up-the-middle handoff that turned into a Zwinak fumble and Frank Clark 24-yard touchdown return became a nightmarish scenario in the game's context and for Zwinak's season as a whole.
Relegated to the sidelines as the Nittany Lions overcame the snafu for the win, Zwinak wouldn't touch the ball again and in the process found himself in an unfamiliar position: A backup.
A favorite of O'Brien's, Zwinak tried to prevent his personal frustration from the costly error - his second of the year - from becoming a ruinous fixation.
Though Zwinak would carry the ball just nine times in the next two games after fumbling again at Ohio State, the redshirt junior bounced back with another late-season flurry of 563 yards and four touchdowns in the team's final four games, including starts against Nebraska and at Wisconsin.
Avoiding putting the ball on the turf again the rest of the season, Zwinak said Monday that, though the fumble concerns voiced by media and fans was to their own prerogatives, he doesn't let it enter his mindset in the face of the 2014 just on the horizon.
"You have to have a short memory or otherwise you're going to continue to make mistakes. I'm not worried about it, but last year I did some things to get back on track and I think it worked out," he said. Besides, he added, the new "chin" technique that new running backs coach Charles Huff has taught and implemented should help. " It's going to be effective and I can't wait to put it into real use for the games."
Fully understanding the consequences of repeating past mistakes, Zwinak has the added benefit of constant reminders coming from Huff to embracing the new ball-carrying technique.
"It's not complicated, but it is. I guess the best way to say it is how Tiki Barber used to run with it. Straight up and down, vertical, so it will be exciting and I can't wait," Zwinak said. "Huff's always out there, especially during spring ball, reminding as soon as you get a handoff you'll hear him yell 'CHIN!' and he's already out here yelling at me for it. It will always be there.
"If you fumble, you can't play, and he's going to make sure that doesn't happen."
Owning a clear mindset with preseason camp now underway, the genial, focused Zwinak said he's approaching his last go 'round in a Penn State uniform as an opportunity not to be wasted.
"It's definitely added a different excitement because it is the last year, so I want to do big things," he said. "I want to go out and just improve my game myself. The more pressure I put on myself, the more likely I am to screw up.
"I just want to come out and have some fun and just try to increase on what I've done in the past years."