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Penn State Football’s Offensive Formula: 1,000 Yards Times A Plus Z

by on August 01, 2013 10:15 PM

A year ago yesterday, running back Silas Redd left Penn State for Southern California. Four days later, wide receiver Justin Brown was gone to Oklahoma. Sanction City.

Just like that, Bill O’Brien kissed good-bye to two veteran players with 434 college career touches and 3,012 rushing, catching and return yards.

O’Brien was just 13 days into the NCAA sanctions, and 211 days and zero games into his head coaching career.

The 25-carry per-game offense he had already designed for Redd? Gone. The No. 1 receiver and guy who had 27 of the squad’s 28 returning punt returns? Gone. Little did O’Brien -- or almost anyone else -- imagine that the departure of Redd and Brown would be colored by the emergence of only the second 1,000-1,000 catch/run duo in Penn State’s 126 years of football history. (And the first of O’Brien’s O-coordinator career.)

The receiver who replaced a Sooner (Allen Robinson) and a back who played later (Zach Zwinak) were unproven yet heralded Penn State sophomores. Together, the two young guns entered the 2012 season with a combined six touches for 36 yards in their collective Penn State careers. That’s only 428 and 2,974 less than their predecessors. Only.

Still, both had excellent credentials. As a freshman Robinson was on the field for 93 plays in 2011 and started the season finale, a 45-7 debacle at Wisconsin. In the 2012 Blue-White game he showed flashes of stardom, grabbing three passes for 87 yards. But to the uninitiated, Robinson was best known for playing at the same high school as former Nittany Lion quarterback Rob Bolden (Orchard Lake St. Mary’s Prep in Michigan).

Besides, A-Rob would be the first to tell you that his true love in high school was basketball. After watching this 11-minute, 21-second high school hoops highlight reel, you also might be left pondering the query that accompanied the YouTube clip: “Should Allen Robinson be playing basketball for Penn State?”

As for Zwinak, as a bruiser at Linganore Hgh School in Frederick, Md., he was an All-American who ran for 1,447 yards as a junior and 2,109 yards and 25 TDs as a senior. And he had great bloodlines; his dad B.J. was a defensive tackle at Virginia Tech.

But … Zwinak had suffered a torn ACL his first year at PSU, while no one was sure whether Robinson’s quiet countenance would manifest itself as uncertainty on the playing field or bubble to the top as a deep burning desire to succeed.

The answer came early:

Robinson grabbed 29 passes for 528 yards and five scores in the first four games of 2012. He finished his sophomore season with 77 receptions for 1,013 yards, a 13.9-yard average, and 11 touchdowns on his way to earning first team All-Big Ten status.

The answer came often (but late):

Zwinak played just one of the 2012’s first three games (three carries for two yards against Virginia), but came up with six 100-yard rushing efforts in the final eight games of the 2012 season. Overall, he ran for 1,000 yards on 203 carries, a 4.9-yard average, and caught 20 passes for 177 yards to lead Penn State in total yardage.

Together, they were only the second 1,000-yard receiver and 1,000-yard rusher in Penn State history. In Penn State’s prolific 1994 season, Bobby Engram caught 52 passes for 1,084 yards, while Ki-Jana Carter ran for 1,539 yards. (Other than that year and Robinson’s 2012 season, Engram had Penn State’s only other 1,000-yard receiving year, with 1,084 in 1995. Zwinak’s was the 22nd 1,000-yard season in Penn State history.)

There was credit enough for their performances to go around. Quarterback Matt McGloin shouldered a good bit of the offense, which was designed by O’Brien. Charles London tutored Zwinak, while NFL veteran Stan Hixon coached up Robinson. And Ron Vanderlinden (Robinson) and Larry Johnson (Zwinak), both still on Penn State’s staff, recruited them.

The result was something that O’Brien had never seen in his six seasons as offensive coordinator at three vastly different stops. He came fairly close two times, with Georgia Tech in 2000 under current Central Florida head coach George O’Leary and in 2010 with the NFL’s New England Patriots. Here is an overview of those half-dozen seasons and each team’s run/catch leaders.

(Note: The Duke numbers are NOT typos.)

GEORGIA TECH, 2000 – Joe Burns, 908 yards rushing; Kelly Campbell, 963 yards receiving.

GEORGIA TECH, 2001 – Burns, 1,165 yards rushing; Campbell, 708 yards receiving.

DUKE, 2005 – Justin Boyle, 490 yards rushing; Ben Patrick, 252 yards receiving.

DUKE, 2006 – Re’quan Boyette, 388 yards rushing; Jomar Wright, 561 yards receiving.

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS, 2010 – BenJarvus Green-Ellis, 1,008 yards rushing; Wes Welker, 848 yards receiving.

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS, 2011 – BenJarvus Green-Ellis, 667 yards rushing; Wes Welker, 1,569 yards receiving.

So, for OB, there’s never been anything like A-Rob and ZZ.

O'Brien has to be hoping that’s the case again in 2013, now that all of college football is on notice. Zwinak has made the preseason watch lists for the Doak Walker Award (nation’s top running back) and Maxwell Award (top collegiate player). Robinson is on the preseason Watch List for the Biletnikoff Award (top receiver).

And some folks think the only Player to Watch is a Lion named Christian.

Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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