UNIVERSITY PARK - A year ago at this time, Penn State's ground game was a big question mark after 2011 leading rusher Silas Redd surprisingly took advantage of the NCAA special transfer rule and took his considerable talent to USC.
It stung Nittany Lion fans for a while. Fewer and fewer are seeing Redd these days, though.
That's because the running backs that stayed in Happy Valley were a more than a sight for sore eyes, and most of them return to have the Penn State running attack looking good for 2013.
"We knew going into last year we didn't have that much experience at the running back position," 5-foot-10, 205-pound junior Bill Belton said. "This year, the tables have turned. Basically, that's where we have a lot of strength."
Bruising 240-pound redshirt junior Zach Zwinak rushed for 1,000 yards and caught 20 passes although he didn't become the starter until week four. Belton, the shifty option quarterback-turned-receiver-turned-halfback, was the starter entering the campaign before his season was hampered by injury, but he still bounced back to turn in a 100-yard rushing performance in the second half of the year against Iowa.
They'll be joined by highly touted redshirt freshman Akeel Lynch, who ran for 83 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries in the spring's Blue-White Game.
It's left Lion coach Bill O'Brien with the pleasant problem of figuring out how to get all of them involved.
"We have three backs there that are good player," O'Brien said at media day on Thursday. "Zwinny obviously is a good player. Akeel Lynch has come in here and had a nice play yesterday on a screen pass. And Billy Belton has already broken a couple runs. He had a nice catch on a flare pass yesterday and had a big gain.
"They're all going to play. All three running backs will play this year."
It should help that each member of Lion rushing triumvirate brings something a little different to the table, allowing them to complement the others well.
"They all have their own niche," Lion running back coach Charles London said. "Zach is kind of our hammer. Billy's a little bit more elusive and can do some things out of the backfield. And Akeel's kind of a mixture of both. I look forward to working with them. I'm just proud of the way they compete. They go out there every day and compete, and they support each other. They know they're all going to have a role on our team and a role in our offense."
It's an interesting mix personality-wise, too. Zwinak is often very low-key, Belton seems to wear his heart on his sleeve, and Lynch is the exuberant youngster.
"We're all different guys. We've all blended together," Lynch said with a laugh. "But we're all teammates, and we all want the best for each other. It's really good."
The fact that each of the three bring something different to the table has allowed Zwinak, Belton and Lynch to play off of each other to improve themselves.
"We all work hard, and we're all learning different aspects to the game. But we help each other a lot. We coach each other. We ask each other for advice," Zwinak said. "It's big, because, as much competition as there is, we strive to get better as a running back group."
The top-rated player at his position in the country coming out of high school in Frederick, Md., Zwinak is a throwback to a day when fullbacks like Larry Csonka pounded the ball at defenses and eventually wore them down. He actually finished with more rushing yards and more catches in 2012 than did Redd at USC.
"Zach is a big, strong guy. He can get the tough yards, but he can take it the distance, too," Belton said of Zwinak, the son of former Virginia Tech player B.J. Zwinak.
Zwinak had six 100-yard rushing efforts last season and enters this year with a string of four in a row. He capped off his sophomore year with a mammoth 36-carry, 175-yard effort in a win over Wisconsin.
Zwinak injured his wrist early in the Blue-White Game and has been wearing the no-contact jersey in early practices, though he said he did all the offseason conditioning and O'Brien said he was fine. It's his second injury at Penn State - he tore his ACL in 2010 - but Zwinak said it won't affect his running style.
"It's just in my personality," Zwinak said, "to run into people."
Belton's last year or so has been full of ups and downs. There was the position switch from wideout to running back, followed by his move to the top of the depth chart only to lose the starting role to Zwinak after missing three games with a sprained ankle. The New Jersey prep product has spent the summer working to improve his grades.
"Everything happens for a reason. I won't say it was a disappointment. I'm just saying that God has a plan. Last year went the way it went, and I'm looking forward to this year," said Belton, who finished with 263 yards on 60 carries. "I'm just looking to come out and play and picking up where I left off."
A member of the "Supa Six" with Allen Robinson, Adrian Amos, Kyle Carter, Deion Barnes and Donovan Smith, Belton was the subject of transfer speculation after the trying last 12 months.
"Those were rumors. Those were rumors," Belton said.
Lynch was all smiles on media day.
"It's exciting to play football at a school you always dreamed about growing up," Lynch said. "I'm definitely excited to get on the field at MetLife Stadium on Aug. 31 against Syracuse.
Lion faithful are excited, too. The Toronto-via-Buffalo product has 214 pounds packed onto his 6-foot frame, perfect for blending power with speed, and reports of his work with the scout team had fans eagerly anticipating his debut. His Blue-White Game performance whetted their appetites.
Lynch welcomed the expectations.
"I believe that pressure makes diamonds. I'll put more pressure on myself this season than anyone else," Lynch said. "It's good to have fan support, and I'm definitely excited to play in front of the fans."
The biggest loss from last year was fullback Michael Zordich. One of the undisputed team leaders, Zordich ranked second on the team in rushing and caught 15 passes. His position will now fall to senior Pat Zerbe and redshirt freshman Dominic Salomone, both of whom came to Penn State as walk-ons.
With O'Brien's tendency to use multiple tight ends and receivers, the Lions probably won't use true fullbacks very much.
"We've very happy with them," London said. "They're both great kids, both very tough kids. They know our offense and the situation. When they are called upon in short yardage, they need to perform."
With a year under their belts learning O'Brien's offense, the running backs are hoping for bigger things in 2013.
"Compared to last year, it's so much easier. Last year, we still were just trying to learn it," Zwinak said. "Now we can jump right in and start running stuff."
"We have a lot of guys returning on offense," Belton said. "This could be a great year for us offensively if we put it all together."