Running back matures, ready for big year

CHICAGO – Bill Belton admits he needed to grow up, to work harder, to not feel entitled.

College football players who don’t learn those lessons and try to rely solely on their talent usually fizzle out fast. And there is a long, long list of such players.

Belton wasn’t going to be one of those cautionary tales.

“I was young,” the Penn State running back said of the issues he faced earlier in his career. “Just like any other young player, (I had) to go through a little rough patch with football and stuff.”

Luckily for him, Belton had a coach in Bill O’Brien who remained committed to making sure the running back continued to work and focus on doing the things he had to do to improve.

“I have the utmost respect for Coach O’Brien,” Belton said. “He helped me achieve and see things differently with college football and school, as well.”

Belton has come a long way, and for his senior season he’s widely projected to be the Nittany Lions’ starting tailback, splitting time with Zach Zwinak and Akeel Lynch.

But let’s backtrack to 2012, when Belton was a key contributor in the middle of the season but disappeared at the end. He sat out three of the Lions’ final four games and had only one carry in the other.

O’Brien, who’s now in the NFL, never fully explained why the running back had been benched, but it essentially came down to work ethic.

“In order to play under Coach O’Brien, you’ve got to come out and practice each day,” Belton said. “I was a young guy that came in, and sometimes you have those days where you’re tired, your body’s weak and stuff like that, but you’ve just got to continue to fight through that. He helped me see that.”

Belton is very talented, but sometimes even the most talented players bury themselves so deep in the doghouse that they never make it out.

O’Brien didn’t do that to the kid. He remained positive and always spoke publicly about how much he liked Belton. He “was always straight up with me,” the running back said of his former coach, and eventually O’Brien’s message started to sink in.

“You’ve got to work,” Belton said. “Whatever you do, you’ve got to work. You can’t come in being lazy. You can’t feel like you’re entitled to anything. You’ve got to work for everything that you earn.”

Belton put in the work – on the field and in the classroom, where he also had been struggling – and last season it paid off. He made big strides on his own and also got plenty of opportunities because Zwinak had so much trouble fumbling that O’Brien had to give Belton a shot.

Belton ran for 108 yards on only nine carries in week two against Eastern Michigan. He had three more games with at least 85 yards over the next five contests – including a memorable a 2-yard TD in the fourth overtime to beat Michigan – then he exploded for 201 yards on 36 carries in an overtime victory against Illinois.

After all he had been through, Belton finally was able to enjoy reaching his potential and living up to two years worth of hype.

At no point during his tough times, Belton noted, did he ever stop having fun.

“Football is always fun,” he said. “This is what I’ve been doing my whole life, and I enjoy playing football.”

He also never considered leaving Penn State, in part because of how he was treated by O’Brien, but also because that’s just not who Belton is as a person.

“I’m not a quitter,” he said. “I don’t quit. I don’t run away from anything. When I was younger, if something was to happen with me in an altercation or something like that, my parents always forced me to go back outside and handle it, whatever it was.”

Belton isn’t upset O’Brien left for the NFL. He understands it’s a business.

New coach James Franklin has spoken repeatedly about how he wants to have a lot of team speed, which benefits Belton because he fits the mold more than the power back Zwinak.

Even though Zwinak ran for 1,000 yards two years ago and outgained Belton by 186 yards last season, the prevailing thought as preseason camp approaches is that Belton will get the first crack at the starting job.

Not that it matters much, Franklin said Monday.

“I don’t think who the starter is really matters,” the coach said. “If you look at major college football or the NFL, you’re going to play three running backs. They’re going to rotate in, and you’re going to keep them fresh, and you’re going to go with the hot hand.”

The running backs are all competing for carries, but that doesn’t mean they don’t push and help one another.

“It’s all about the team, it’s not about one person,” Belton said before adding. “We help each other grow, on and off the field. We just compete with each other. That’s the spirit you’ve got to have in the room.”

Running back is considered one of Penn State’s strengths entering the season, but obviously the backs can’t do it all themselves. They will have to rely on the offensive line, and that just so happens to be the team’s biggest question mark.

If the line struggles, it may not matter who’s running the ball because there won’t be anywhere to go.

Belton is the faster, shiftier back, which can help him break free on the outside if he gets a chance. But if teams bottle things up and force the Lions to run between the tackles, the stronger Zwinak would seem to have an edge since he can create his own running room better than Belton.

Franklin said Monday that talent isn’t the issue with the offensive line, it’s experience.

“I do think we have some talent,” he said. “I do think we have some guys that have some experience. The exciting thing is we have some guys that have some length, as well. The issue is you have to have all of those things. We’ve got some guys who have the length that we need at tackle, but they don’t have the time in the program yet, they may not be big and strong enough to do it.”

Belton said the linemen came a long way during the spring and have been putting in a lot of extra work this summer. It could take several games, perhaps many more, before the line really gels, and that will be one of the most important things to watch early in the season.

Belton and the running backs won’t have the luxury of waiting half a season for the line to develop, but he also doesn’t think it will take that long.

“I have no doubt in my mind that they’ll come out Aug. 30 and be ready to go,” he said.

As for his personal goals, Belton wants to be an every-down type of back who excels in all areas, including blocking and catching the ball out of the backfield.

And his ultimate goal?

“I want to be on a national scale,” he said. “I want to be a back that everyone talks about.”