UNIVERSITY PARK - Early in spring practice, as the Penn State football team was breaking down into positions for drills, new Nittany Lion coach Bill O'Brien saw a player going with the wrong group.
At least, in his mind.
"I said 'Where you going?' He said, 'I'm a receiver,'" O'Brien recalled in his press conference to kick off Penn State media day on Thursday morning at Beaver Stadium. "'No. You're a running back.' So we put him at running back."
That was just one of the unusual twists and turns that has led to Bill Belton, a youth-ball running back turned into a high school quarterback who two years ago had committed to Pitt to play wideout, becoming the No. 1 tailback on the Lion depth chart entering now that 2011 1,000-yard rusher Silas Redd has transferred to USC as a result of the recent NCAA sanctions against Penn State.
"Everything happens for a reason," Belton said. "I'm just ready to get started.
"Like Coach O'Brien says, 'Next man up.' I'm ready to go."
Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski
Bill O’Brien works on a running back drill.
And, even if he isn't, the Lions seem to have other options, as well. It's really saying something that Penn State could lose a player the caliber of Redd and still might not miss much of a beat because of the number of gifted running backs still on the roster.
"We're blessed. We've got a lot of talent back there. That's what depth does," said senior fullback Michael Zordich. "I think we can see a lot of good things come out of this."
In addition to Belton, who made his mark running the wildcat late last season and was one of the top offensive performers in the Blue-White Game in April, the group includes returning starter and primary lead blocker Zordich, Curtis Dukes, a 245-pound junior with the straight-ahead speed of a player 40 pounds lighter, highly regarded freshman Akeel Lynch and Zach Zwinak, a sophomore ranked as the top fullback in the country coming out of high school who still possesses ball-carrying skills.
"And Derek Day," running backs coach Charles London added about the senior who joined the squad four years ago as an invited walk-on. "A lot of people don't put Derek in there. I put Derek in there. I have no concerns with what he's going to do."
It's a group that offers O'Brien a variety of weapons and looks, a group that has a lot of potential, but also a group that is largely unproven. Redd and the graduated tandem of Stephfon Green and Brandon Beachum combined for 339 of the Lions' 515 carries last season. Dukes was the most-utilized returning runner, averaging a solid 5.8 yards on 41 totes.
The main buzz, though, surrounds Belton, a quick-footed true sophomore whose compact 5-foot-10, 202-pound dimensions are almost identical to those of Redd, a 1,241-yard rusher last season.
Belton made his mark first running the wildcat in the Lions' 20-14 mid-November win at Ohio State. After picking up 65 yards on 13 carries late last season, Belton came back to run for 50 yards and a touchdown on seven carries in Penn State's spring game. One of his runs was for 20 yards.
"He showed us he has really good feet. He's got a unique ability to be able to balance, put his hand on the ground and balance himself and spin," O'Brien said of Belton. "He has really good hands out of the backfield. So I feel good about Billy.
"I think he's grown up in the last six or seven months. I think Charles London has done a heck of a job coaching him. Can he carry the ball 20 to 25 times a game? I think he can."
Belton thinks so, too.
"I was happy with the decision [to make the position switch]," Belton said. "Making the transition was easy. I grew up playing running back."
While Belton brings a number of qualities to the table, one thing in particular will have a big impact on the shape his development as a running back takes.
"I think running [the wildcat] last year will help him with his instincts, but what it's not going to help him with is his ball security," London said. "He knows it, and I talk to him about it every day. We've got to get that solved with him, and he's made a conscious effort to get better at it.''
Dukes either will provide insurance or a nice complement to Belton's shiftiness with his size and power. The 6-0, 209-pound Lynch, meanwhile, might end up the best of the bunch down the road; he was so highly thought of that Oklahoma offered him a scholarship.
"He's a strong guy. He's a one-cut, slash-type kid," London said. "I've been impressed mentally with what he's been able to pick up.''
Lynch considered transferring to Iowa when the NCAA sanctions came down. Dukes, also, looked elsewhere. Despite his natural gifts, Dukes has had trouble getting on the field, for reasons ranging from concerns about his blocking early in his career to academics that kept him out in the spring. But he chose to remain with the Lions.
"I didn't want to run away from the situation. I wanted to stick with my teammates," Dukes said.
Running away from opponents, though, not only acceptable, it's desired.
"We're looking forward to Sept. 1," Belton said.