Zach Zwinak will attempt to land in the NFL a little differently than his former teammate at Linganore High, Rob Havenstein.
Zwinak, 22, will try out for the Houston Texans and his former coach at Penn State, Bill O’Brien, this Friday through Sunday. O’Brien is now the head coach and offensive coordinator for the Texans.
Most of O’Brien’s assistants in Houston are carryovers from his tenure at Penn State and would also be familiar with Zwinak, a 6-foot-1, 232-pound running back who rushed for 2,108 yards and 21 touchdowns in four seasons with the Nittany Lions that were marred by injuries.
“I get a high-school tryout all over again,” Zwinak joked Saturday evening in a phone interview. “Only this one’s at a much higher level.”
Zwinak, an undrafted free agent, will arrive in Houston on Thursday. He will not be compensated for participating in the tryout.
If all goes well with the tryout, he will enter into a little more formal agreement with the Texans and be invited to training camp.
If the Texans aren’t interested, he’ll hope to keep his name out there and hook on with another team. After being invited to the tryout by the Texans on Saturday, he spent most of the evening trying to secure an agent.
“It’s an opportunity,” Zwinak said of the tryout.
In the fall of 2009, Zwinak rushed for 2,109 yards and 25 touchdowns in leading Linganore High to a 14-0 season and the Class 3A state championship.
Many of those runs occurred over the left side of the offensive line, where Havenstein, a teammate of his for four years at Linganore, was playing left tackle and blocking for him. On Friday night, Havenstein was drafted in the second round (57th overall) by the St. Louis Rams.
“Rob would probably deny this if you asked him,” Zwinak said. “But his success largely made me who I am as a player.”
In 2010, during his freshman year at Penn State, Zwinak tore his anterior cruciate ligament and did not appear in a single game. As a redshirt in 2011, he saw the field in two games and rushed for 7 yards on three carries.
In 2012, he enjoyed his best season for the Nittany Lions, averaging almost 5 yards per carry. He finished the season with 1,000 yards and six touchdowns on 203 carries.
The following season, on roughly the same number of attempts (210), he ran for nearly 1,000 yards and doubled his touchdowns (12) from the previous season.
Then, he suffered another setback last fall. On Oct. 25, Zwinak was “rolled up on” from behind on the opening kickoff of Penn State’s 31-24 double overtime home loss to eventual national champion Ohio State.
He was carted off the field and diagnosed with a broken left ankle. His season was over, and his professional football future hung in doubt.
“It’s funny to say, but I wasn’t thinking about football at the time,” Zwinak said. “I was thinking about all of the normal things that I wouldn’t be able to do, like hanging out with my friends in a normal way. There’s only so much you can do wearing a boot on crutches.”
The injury greatly impacted Zwinak’s NFL draft stock. He was forced to miss the scouting combine in mid-February in Indianapolis. But he was able to perform before NFL scouts at Penn State’s pro day a month later.
“Considering everything that happened, I am happy to have this opportunity (with the Texans),” he said. “I wasn’t sure how things were going to go.”
If Zwinak lands on an NFL roster, that will mean two friends from the small town of Mount Airy will be playing professional football. The odds of that happening are miniscule.
“Zach and Robby were always special,” Linganore High football coach Rick Conner said. “They were outstanding football players but even better people.”