By Philip Cmor
Penn State may be known as "Linebacker U,'' but the Nittany Lions have been pretty successful in developing top-notch fullbacks in the Joe Paterno Era, too.
While true fullbacks aren't as big a factor in offenses like they were in the days of Franco Harris, Matt Suhey and Jon Williams, the Lions have still found a way to successfully integrate them into their scheme.
That seems to have played a big part in Penn State's ability to land a verbal commitment from Maryland's Zach Zwinak, considered by some to be the premier fullback prospect in the country, on Monday morning.
"Everybody is pretty excited for me. I'm happy. It feels like I have made the right decision," Zwinak told the Frederick, Md., News-Post at practice on Monday.
Rated the No. 1 fullback in the senior class by both Scout.com and Rivals.com, Zwinak narrowed his choices to the Nittany Lions and Virginia Tech, where his father, P.J., played on the same defensive line with eventual NFL Hall of Famer Bruce Smith.
The rest of his final five were Pitt, North Carolina and Maryland. The 6-foot-2, 245-pound first-team all-Maryland running back from Linganore High School is the 16th recruit in a 2010 Penn State recruiting class expected to eventually numbers around 20 players.
The Lions now have nine recruits ranked in the top 10 at their respective position by Scout.com.
"I wanted to get it over with so I could focus on my [high school] season. Both [Penn State and Virginia Tech] only had four scholarships left, and I didn't want to get shut out of one of those schools," Zwinak said.
However, it's also been widely speculated that Penn State's use of its fullback in both the running and passing games might have been the clincher in securing his pledge over the Hokies. Linganore coach Rick Conner said that while Zwinak said he just felt more comfortable at Penn State, where Zwinak visited twice in the spring, he thought ability to get on the field and be more than a blocker might have played a part in Zwinak's decision - the Mirror was unable to reach Zwinak by its press deadline.
"Coach [Larry] Johnson did a great job,'' Conner said. "I think in their offense he felt he might have fit in a little better.''
Zwinak's credentials indicate a back who has potential to be multi-purpose threat. Despite his size, he has been timed at 4.5 seconds in the 40-yard dash on multiple occasions, and Conner has utilized him as a wingback and tailback.
Last year, Zwinak led the Lancers to a 13-1 record and a berth in the state championship game in Maryland's largest-school classification by averaging 10.8 yards per carry, rushing for 1,447 yards and scoring 19 touchdowns. One of his blockers is 6-7, 330-pound Rob Havenstein, who is also considering a scholarship offer from Penn State.
Linganore has gotten off to a 2-0 start this year, with Zwinak running for 282 yards and five scores. Last week, he piled up 204 yards and two TDs in a 45-7 win over Middletown.
"He's explosive. I've never seen anything like it,'' Conner, who also used Zwinak as his middle linebacker, said. "He's fast. He can block. He can catch. He can run.''
Zwinak actually gets the speed from his mother. While his father played big-time college football, Zwinak's mom, Diane, ran track at North Carolina - she still holds several high school records, according to Conner.
"He's a quiet kid, a kid of few words,'' Conner said. "He's an old-school football player. He leaves the field the dirtiest. He'll be the first one to get a tear in his shirt or his pants. He's just a throwback.
"If you appreciate football, you'll appreciate this kid.''