Bill O’Brien was an assistant coach with the New England Patriots when he dealt with two of the New York Giants’ three versatile running backs — Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw — in Super Bowl XLII.
Derrick Ward was injured that game, but the trio christened themselves “Earth, Wind and Fire” after that season. Each element represented a player who brought a different threat into the backfield.
Now, O’Brien is the head coach of Penn State. Silas Redd was supposed to be his primary running back, but his transfer, combined with early season injuries to Bill Belton and Derek Day, have given guys such as Zach Zwinak, Curtis Dukes and Michael Zordich more opportunities to carry the ball.
As Belton and Day have now recovered, O’Brien now has five viable options at tailback. He said he would utilize two or three on Saturday at Illinois.
“It's a good question, because all of the kids bring a little bit different skill-set to the table,” O’Brien said. “Whether it's Zordich, Zwinak, Dukes, Belton, and then obviously Derek Day. Some guys are first and second down guys. Some are three down guys. Some are a little bit quicker. Some guys are bigger. Some guys are faster, [and] some guys catch the ball better.”
If Belton is healthy, he will almost certainly resume his season as the Lions’ primary back. Coaches and players alike raved about Belton’s improved vision and balance on the practice field and against Ohio. His ball security remains a question after he fumbled on Penn State’s first drive of the season.
After him, it’s up in the air. O’Brien told the group the coaching staff would make a decision after watching them practice this week.
Day started at Virginia after Belton injured his ankle against Ohio. Zordich had the first carries against Navy and Temple after Day separated his shoulder against the Cavaliers. Zwinak and Dukes also saw some action.
“I was starting to get into a little bit of a groove, it felt like,” Day said. “Getting back into the swing of things. I hadn’t really gotten too much of an opportunity to play on the offensive side of the ball until this year. I might have been a little bit rusty since high school.”
Day is similar in stature to Belton, and he has been a special teams guy for most of his collegiate career. He said he can contribute as both a blocker and a runner.
Zordich has spent more than three years on a lifting regimen designed for a fullback. However, his 127 rushing yards in the last two games have proven he can break tackles and run in the open field.
At 6-foot-1 and 245 pounds, Dukes is never an easy man to bring to the ground, and Zwinak made a statement when he flirted with 100 rushing yards against Temple.
Even Paul Jones had a carry, albeit for a seven-yard loss, against the Owls. O’Brien hasn’t shown any inclination he would employ a Wildcat formation, but Jones adds the threat of a possible pass every time he has the football behind the line of scrimmage.
“We play a tough spot where you can get banged up, taking a lot of different hits from a lot of different angles,” Zordich said. “It’s good to have depth and have guys who can go in there.”
O’Brien probably doesn’t have the “Earth, Wind and Fire” attack in mind at Penn State. He did spend the last three years working with Tom Brady — one of the best passing quarterbacks in the NFL — in pass-happy offense.
But the Lions can go after their opponents with elusive quickness and grinding physicality at the running back position, and Zordich said that messes with the defense’s schemes.
“We got guys who can do one thing, and we got guys who can do another thing,” Zordich said. “We got guys who can do a little bit of both. It’s tough for other defenses to go against that because they don’t know what to expect or who’s going to be in. It just helps everybody out.”