Things haven’t gone according to plan for Bill Belton and the Penn State backfield this season.
Belton was originally supposed to get the bulk of carries as the sophomore was chosen to fill Silas Redd’s shoes after the junior transferred to Southern California. However, after about two and a half quarters in the team’s season-opener against Ohio, Belton badly sprained his left ankle and the landscape of Penn State’s backfield changed.
For the first time since the injury, Belton played Saturday and ran the ball 16 times for 65 yards in Penn State’s win against Illinois. He said his ankle felt great after the game.
Belton was still the Lions’ No. 1 back, but he had to do more sharing Saturday, as four other backs got carries. Zach Zwinak led the team with 19 carries for 100 yards, and though Belton didn’t get quite as many attempts, he said he doesn’t mind the new look.
“We’re a team and different backs and do different things. And we all complement each other,” Belton said. “So I wouldn’t say it’s frustrating, as long as we get a team win, we’re perfectly all right with that.”
Penn State went with a running back-by-committee look when Belton was sidelined, and coach Bill O’Brien continued to use multiple tailbacks against the Illini. Penn State ended up rushing the ball 52 times against Illinois, the most attempts on the ground of the season.
Though O’Brien said Belton would get 20-25 carries per contest at the beginning of the season, at his weekly press conference Tuesday that things have changed. O’Brien said he plans on continuing to use a multi-back attack and noted Belton and other backs might average about 12-15 carries a game.
“I thought he made some good runs, thought he made some runs that we need to improve on,” O’Brien said about Belton’s game against Illinois. “He’s a guy that can really have a big effect on the game. He’s got great feet, he’s got good speed, he can catch the ball in the backfield. As long as he stays healthy, he’ll always be a part of our gameplan.”
In the Ohio game, Belton had 13 carries for 53 yards, lost a fumble and scored a touchdown on a six-yard pass. Belton said he spent time in the training room in the weeks between the injury and the Illinois game, and he had his performance from week one on his mind.
“I was constantly replaying that first game in my head and looking for things to improve on,” Belton said. “That was kind of my motivation. Just getting back on track, health-wise it’s definitely hard to take an injury like that in the opening game, but I wanted to get back. So I did possibly anything to get me back.”
The 5-foot-10, Sicklerville, N.J. native spent his freshman season listed as a wide receiver and played in the role as one of Penn State’s wildcat quarterbacks. However, when O’Brien was hired, he switched Belton’s role to running back.
Guard John Urschel called Belton a “jack of all trades.”
“I think he’s adjusted extremely well to the running back position and he’s a great back,” Urschel said. “And we’re blessed that he’s coming back to where we got him healthy.”