Running backs will be splitting time
UNIVERSITY PARK – Deciding between the last player allowed to wear 1973 Heisman Trophy winner John Cappelletti’s famed No. 22 for Penn State and two juniors – one of whom is coming off a 1,000-yard season – is not a bad predicament.
That is the situation Bill O’Brien is faced with at running back.
The second-year coach has Zach Zwinak, Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch to choose from in his backfield, and according to this week’s depth chart, no one has a leg up on the others as they were all separated by “OR.”
However, O’Brien has a plan of action for the three backs.
“I like all three of these guys playing,” O’Brien said Tuesday. “I think one of the things that we try to do is, if a guy gets really hot, we’ll stick with a hot running back.”
The running game, which fired on all cylinders last year behind Zwinak, struggled in the season opener against Syracuse as the Nittany Lions netted only 57 yards.
Penn State rebounded last week with a 251-yard performance against Eastern Michigan on the ground behind all three running backs.
Zwinak recognized the running back corps had to come back and pick it up from the previous performance.
“Last week wasn’t pretty, but we got the job done,” Zwinak said after a 45-7 rout of the Eagles. “So this week, we wanted to come in and be physical as a team. The line played physical and the team played physical, also. So that’s a reflection of our coaches.”
The Frederick, Md., native also said it allows each back to get a turn and a crack at carrying the load for the offense.
Belton, who backed up Zwinak and faced injury last year, said he has no problem with the new system.
“It keeps us fresh, and when the defense is worn down, we always have a fresh back coming in,” Belton said.
Belton and Zwinak starkly contrast one another in running styles as Belton thrives on speed and Zwinak flourishes in the power game.
With different rushing styles, the backs teach each other how to do various specialties the other has, and Belton displayed that when he ran over a couple of Eagle defenders – giving the credit to Zwinak.
“We pick a lot of things up from each other,” Belton said. “One thing I wanted to work on this year was being more physical and being more downhill. Me and Zach exchange things that we need to work on, so that was my task going into the game.”
O’Brien said Belton is running better now and that he is more decisive while rushing, but still needs work in protection situations. The coach also said that a running back by committee is not so bad when you have three good running backs.
The third running back rounding out Penn State’s corps is redshirt freshman Akeel Lynch.
The Ontario, Canada native did not play against Syracuse but busted out for 108 yards the next week and scored his first collegiate touchdown.
Lynch did not make much of his absence during the first game on offense and proved his team player attitude.
“I just came in and did my role on special teams,” Lynch said. “And then coach [Charles[ London came in and said, ‘This is your opportunity. We’re going to get you in.’ And when I came in, I was like, ‘Hey, I got to make the most of my opportunities.'”
With Lynch adding another set of legs to the run game, it is apparent how supportive each back is of the other.
When the 211-pound rusher was asked if Zwinak, Belton and he could be a three-headed monster of backs, he responded that it is how they envisioned themselves.
“Whenever we score a touchdown, we all cheer each other on,” Lynch said. “That’s the kind of friendship and atmosphere we have in our running back meeting room and our running back community.”