UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- For at least one person watching the Illinois game Saturday, the recurring image of Penn State sophomore Zach Zwinak banging into defenders and knocking them down was not a surprise.

His high school coach, Richard Conner, had seen this before. He had watched Zwinak routinely run not around but through Division I prospects.

"A man playing with boys," Conner said.

This is obviously a strange era for Penn State. In a time of sanctions and transfers, memories can get lost, talent can be forgotten.

Perhaps that is what had happened to Zwinak, who admits shock at his 194 rushing yards in the past two games.

In reality, he always has been charted for this course, a four-star recruit with size (6 feet 1, 232 pounds) and speed, a consensus top-three fullback nationally in the class of 2010.

The great offensive surprise of the young season is not really a surprise.

"He was buried on the depth chart for a while, and now he's made the most of it," quarterback Matt McGloin said.

The recruiters came from all over when Zwinak attended Linganore High School in Frederick, Md., and he was not simply the Atlantic Region flavor of the year. He was known nationally.

By his senior year in 2009, Notre Dame, California, Ohio State and Stanford had made offers.


Advertisement

He ran for 2,109 yards on 164 carries that season, an average of 12.9 yards per carry. Linganore won the state title and finished among USA Today's Top 25.

One game, Conner recalled, Zwinak rushed for more than 100 yards on three carries. All went for touchdowns.

"He probably could have set state records if we played him in second half," Conner said.

Conner also remembered a 90-yard scoring run in which Zwinak stiff-armed two defenders who had the angle on him.

He was born and raised for this style of play. His mother, Diane Thomas, competed in track at North Carolina. His father, B.J. Zwinak, played defensive tackle at Virginia Tech.

Always bigger than most his age, his father told him to get his pads up and get up field.

Coaches emphasized that point. A downhill runner was made, a back who runs in a straight line regardless of who stands in front of him. Downhill runners choose contact everytime.

Despite a style of play that makes his body sore within hours after the game, nothing prepared Zwinak for the torn knee ligament in October 2010 that ended his freshman season at Penn State.

"I thought it was the end of my career," he said.

The fear subsided after team doctor Wayne Sebastianelli ensured the likelihood of a recovery, after linebacker Michael Mauti talked to him about it, after he realized former linebacker Sean Lee had come back from an ACL tear as well.

He rehabilitated the knee and was healthy last season. He played in just two games.

On the summer depth chart, he was listed fourth at tailback.

Then, all the well-known complications arose. Silas Redd transferred, and Bill Belton and Derek Day got injured.

After so-so performances against Virginia and Navy, Zwinak broke out against Temple and Illinois.

Coach Bill O'Brien has said he will use a running-back-by-committee approach, choosing certain backs for their strengths and optimally getting multiple backs 10-15 carries a game.

He said Belton would be used for his speed and ability to get outside.

Zwinak, with his power inside, serves as a near-perfect complement to that style.

"I honestly would love to have a little more shiftiness than I do now," Zwinak said. "But I like the way I run now.

"I've always been a bigger kid. I'm trying to use the size to my advantage any way I can."

Conner knows exactly what kind of an advantage that can be if Zwinak continues to improve. He tries to stay in touch with Zwinak every week and said his former player deserves the carries he has been getting.

"He's loving it," Conner said. "It's football, but to Zach it's really important."