Bill O’Brien seemed surprised to learn from a reporter at Penn State media day that his team is deep at running back. It’s not lack of talent, but lack of numbers.
“The depth at where?” O’Brien said. “There’s three of them…all three running backs will play this year.”
The Nittany Lions will roll out a trio of backs this fall, but with only Zach Zwinak, Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch on scholarship, O’Brien needs all of them to contribute.
Zwinak injured his wrist in April’s Blue-White game and has been limited in training camp, wearing a red non-contact jersey for several practices prior to last week. O’Brien is confident that the redshirt junior will be ready for Saturday’s game against Syracuse.
For as long as Penn State remains handicapped by the NCAA’s sanctions, injuries will always be a concern. Running back is no different this year.
If healthy, though, talent among Zwinak, the bruiser, Belton, the speedster, and Lynch, a combination of the two, isn’t lacking. It’s a three-headed monster of sorts.
“If that’s the title you want to give it, so be it,” Belton said. “But we can all go out there and play.”
Zwinak, 6-foot-1 and 240 pounds, climbed the depth chart last season and ran for an average of 147 yards per game over the Lions’ final four contests. After getting just three carries total in the first three games of the season, he finished with 1,000 yards and six touchdowns, averaging 4.9 yards per carry.
Belton has had some ups and downs in his time at Penn State. He started his career as a wide receiver and played a little wildcat quarterback as a freshman, then topped the team’s depth chart at running back before the 2012 season.
But an ankle injury sidelined Belton for three games and he never saw consistent time after, getting just one carry over the final third of the season. He’s had academic problems in the past year, but O’Brien said those have been worked out.
So Belton added weight and O’Brien has been impressed with the junior’s work and progress this fall.
“There’s still a lot of people that think I can’t run through the tackles,” Belton said. “I’m just going to wait till this year and prove everybody wrong.”
“He’s had a really good camp,” O’Brien said. “He’s running the ball well, he’s catching the ball well. He’s doing a nice job for us.”
Lynch ran for 83 yards on 13 carries in the Blue-White game after redshirting in 2012. Dubbed the “Big Maple” by O’Brien — Lynch hails from Toronto — he was the 2011 New York Gatorade Player of the Year.
Lynch said his biggest focus this offseason was improving his pass blocking. Running the ball is more instinctual, he said, but pass blocking takes a little more work and persistence.
“If you have aspirations to play in the NFL, the biggest thing is pass blocking,” Lynch said. “Everyone in the NFL can run the ball, but understanding defenses and being able to pick up the blitzes is what separates you.”
Steven Petrella can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (814) 865-1828. Follow him on Twitter at @Steve_Petrella.