Position review: Running back

Zach Zwinak was a huge surprise at running back, saving the Nittany Lions and producing after more heralded players faltered in the featured role. Bruce Thorson/US PRESSWIRE

Every day over the next two weeks, NittanyNation will take a closer look at each position and how Penn State fared over the course of the season.

Up today: Running back.

If one position symbolized Bill O'Brien's "next man up" philosophy, it would be this one. Bill Belton started the season as the main tailback, a sophomore who was expected to get 20-25 touches a game. Then he went down, and on came an ineffective Derek Day.

Rinse and repeat. One tailback went down after another until Penn State ran out of options and was forced to turn to sophomore Zach Zwinak, a former third-string fullback. And Zwinak turned out to be the best of the bunch.

O'Brien had hoped to use a tailback similar to those in New England -- shifty, speedy backs who could also be involved in the passing game. But, even when Belton returned, he underwhelmed and Zwinak's success couldn't be ignored.

Zwinak might have been the surprise of the year. He rushed for 1,000 yards and six touchdowns, averaging nearly five yards a carry and arguably performing better than USC transfer Silas Redd. Michael Zordich impressed when he saw the field, too, but the other three -- Belton, Day, Curtis Dukes -- definitely underperformed. Penn State finished strong, but it definitely struggled early and still had the nation's No. 83 rushing offense.

NittanyNation rating: B

Season highlight: Nov. 24 vs. Wisconsin. With the pass game struggling in the first half, Zwinak became Penn State's workhorse -- and didn't disappoint. He finished with 36 carries for 179 yards and pounded Wisconsin's top-15 rush defense for at least three yards a clip.

He outrushed Montee Ball and was never tackled behind the line of scrimmage. He was the offensive MVP and helped PSU's seniors go out with a win.

What was missing at this position? A home run threat. Belton underachieved more than anyone still on the team, and Penn State really had no one outside of the Killer Z's to hand the ball off to. If Akeel Lynch can nail down the playbook in the offseason -- or Richy Anderson or another 2013 commit steps up -- this might not be an issue next season. Zwinak was consistent and dependable, but he's no scatback. PSU needs a change-of-pace back who can break out for a big play.