STATE COLLEGE — Zach Zwinak has to hold back on the hits this spring.
It’s not the bruising running back’s style, but it is a necessity given Penn State’s smaller scholarship roster. Some positions have less depth than others, though the limits on tackling extend to the whole team.
Coach Bill O’Brien removes the restraints one day a week at spring practice — and that day comes Saturday, when the Nittany Lions wrap up drills with the Blue-White intrasquad scrimmage.
“A lot of players, when we play football, we want to hit,” Zwinak said Wednesday. “Not being able to hit sometimes, it’s hard because you miss it.”
But it’s a move O’Brien has made out of caution to help keep the team healthy going into the fall. NCAA sanctions are forcing Penn State to reduce the size of its scholarship roster from 85 in 2012 to 65 by the 2014 season. The restriction lasts for four years.
So 2013 is a transition season.
“There’s nothing more important this year, the next year and the year after, than the health of the football team,” O’Brien said last week. “We’re going try to do that and teach these guys to practice on their feet.”
The 234-pound Zwinak said he’s sticking with his downhill running style. Still, position coach Charles London is trying to teach him a few tricks to shake off would-be tacklers without bowling them over head-on.
“Whenever you can, just try to make the guy miss. ... Avoid blatantly running into somebody when you have an open field,” Zwinak said when asked to recount advice from position coach Charles London.
Another tailback, Bill Belton, actually better fits the shake-and-bake mold. Belton, who is listed at 5-foot-10 and 199 pounds, began 2012 as the starter but was supplanted by Zwinak by season’s end.
O’Brien has also liked how redshirt freshman Akeel Lynch has looked this spring. Zwinak describes Lynch as a running back with some power and elusiveness.
Zwinak is the returning 1,000-yard rusher, but so far all three scholarship running backs are splitting reps evenly. The competition has apparently carried over from last season, when O’Brien said time in the backfield would be determined by who worked hardest in practice.
The limited contact policy carries over to the rest of the team. Defensive tackle DaQuan Jones has sat out a few practices this spring with what O’Brien has described as a lower back issue.
Jones on Wednesday said that was only a precaution, though he’s not sure if the coaching staff has decided if he’ll play in the spring game.
Not that Jones needs a lot of practice time anyway. The starter at tackle alongside Jordan Hill, who is off to the NFL, Jones has become the de facto leader of the defensive line.
“I’m limited in my number of reps. It helps my body recover better and faster,” Jones said. “So right now, I feel pretty good.”
Even if the team stops short of hitting on the majority of practice days, players say they’re running through the mental reps needed to get plays down.
O’Brien’s description makes practice seem like a stepped-up game of schoolyard two-hand touch football — with a little extra shoving allowed.
“We don’t want guys diving to make tackles or diving to break-up footballs or break-up passes,” O’Brien said. “We want guys playing on their feet and moving their feet to get in position to make a tackle. ... That’s how a high quality football player practices.”
But Saturday is the exception this week, to be played with full tackling except on special teams. Jones said the defensive line is looking forward to renewing its friendly rivalry with the offensive line.
“We tell them they’re not running the ball,” Jones said. “The emphasis in (Saturday’s scrimmage) is stopping the run.”
Zwinak may have something to say about that.