When Bill O’Brien first evaluated his receiving corps, he noticed something was wrong.
“Where are you going?” he said to sophomore Bill Belton.
“I’m a receiver,” Belton responded.
“No, you’re a running back,” O’Brien corrected him.
At the time, Belton was a running back in stature alone. O’Brien identifies the position for players who are between 5-foot-9 and 5-foot-11, muscular and built low to the ground.
Belton has played in the backfield before. He rushed for 1,003 yards and 13 touchdowns as a quarterback at Winslow Township High School (NJ). He took snaps in the wildcat for Penn State last season.
But Belton’s role has evolved quickly over the last few months. When O’Brien informed him of the position change, he was all-in.
“There was no hesitation at all,” Belton said. “Coach O’Brien is straightforward guy, and whatever he tells us is the god-honest truth. I definitely believe in his vision and what he has to say.”
Of course, O’Brien’s vision was using Belton as a supplement to Silas Redd. Instead, Redd is at the University of Southern California and Belton is now Penn State’s first option out of the backfield.
His confidence is unswayed.
“I’m a complete back,” Belton said. “One who can run the ball, catch out of the backfield and block.”
O’Brien has liked what he’s seen from Belton so far, raving of his footwork and balance and praying his ball security continues to hold strong. In practice, it sometimes seems as though running backs coach Charles London goes out of his way to make sure his players protect the football. He’s smacked them, swiped them and clawed at them. Even O’Brien will occasionally step in and try to strip the ball.
To further assure ball security, strength and conditioning coach Craig Fitzgerald has worked especially hard with the running backs.
“Can [Belton] carry the ball 20 to 25 times a game?” O’Brien said. “I think he can. Fitzy's got him ready to go to take the pounding in the Big Ten.”
The remainder of carries look to be split among guys such as Derek Day, Akeel Lynch, Curtis Dukes, Michael Zordich and Zach Zwinak. Lynch is a freshman, but other four combined for 66 carries, 301 yards and three touchdowns in 2011.
“Come September first, we’re going to be moving a lot of people around as a team,” Belton said.
Belton has his supporting cast, but none are as equipped as he is to carry the ball full-time. Now that Redd is gone, the backfield belongs to the former wideout who will look to his roots to thrive.
“When I was little, my dad put a football in my hand and I ran with it,” Belton said figuratively.
In 2012, he’ll do it literally, except it will be quarterback Matt McGloin putting the ball in his hands.