Bill Belton has been ambiguously open about the changes in his game from last year to now. He’s talked about being “closed” and how an ankle injury slowed him, but he hasn’t gotten into specifics.
Regardless of what the problems were, Penn State’s junior running back has turned a corner and is leaving 2012 behind him.
“I think last year, I was more closed off as a player and person,” Belton said after a 34-0 win over Kent State, “and I think I just opened up more so to the coaching and taking their advice a lot more than last year. It definitely helps.”
Belton was among the top 250 players in the nation in the class of 2011, according to Rivals.com, and was recruited as an athlete before starting his career as wide receiver. Coach Bill O’Brien said one of the first times he saw Belton on the field, he wondered why the 5-foot-10, 205-pound Belton wasn’t a running back. So O’Brien made him one.
“It was going to take time and it wasn’t going to happen overnight,” Belton said.
Things weren’t so rosy in the initial phase of the transition. Despite topping the depth chart at the beginning of last season, Belton injured his ankle in a season-opening loss to Ohio and never fully regained steam. He had one carry in the team’s final four games.
“When you have an injury like that… you try to do things on your own, but [the coaches] did a good job with me and staying in my corner and helping me,” Belton said. “They helped me with my patience, and getting down hill, so totally credit them for that.”
In 2013, Belton has carried 33 times for 253 yards (7.7 per) and two scores. He also caught a touchdown last week against Kent State, his second reception of the year.
Two other running backs have enjoyed success alongside Belton. Redshirt junior Zach Zwinak, who tops the depth chart, has 297 yards on 67 carries and has eight touchdowns, tied for most in the country. Redshirt freshman Akeel Lynch has a pair of 100-yard games.
O’Brien has been pleased with what he’s seen on the ground, and has praised Belton since media day in early August.
“We moved him from receiver to running back; it takes a little time even though he was a high school quarterback,” O’Brien said. “He did well in the summer academically. He had a really good training camp. He’s practiced well and he’s played well.”
The Nittany Lions as a whole, in addition to Belton, have been better on the ground this season. In 2012, they ranked 101st of 124 collegiate teams in yards per carry at 3.64 and 85th in yards per game with 143.9.
This year, Penn State is 49th and 50th in those categories, respectively. And they have fun.
Belton said because he came up a yard short of a touchdown against Kent State, he’ll get hounded in the meeting room for the rest of the week — in a light-hearted way.
“We feed off each other as you can see on the sidelines,” Lynch said. “When one guy scores, we’re happy for him. We just rotate each other, we talk to each other, we communicate with each other. So it’s a very healthy relationship we all have.”
Steven Petrella can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (814) 865-1828. Follow him on Twitter at @steve_petrella