Penn State Football: At Long Last, Nittany Lions Have Full Stable of Healthy Tailbacks
Penn State coach Bill O’Brien hasn’t had the option of hammering the opposition with the same tailback over and over this season.
A litany of injuries has forced the first-year coach to rotate his running backs at a maddening pace.
Through four games, there have been four different starters.
However, O’Brien said Tuesday he thinks Bill Belton (high ankle sprain), Derek Day (separated shoulder), Michael Zordich (bruised left knee) and Curtis Dukes (thigh) will be healthy enough to play in the Nittany Lions’ Big Ten Conference opener at Illinois.
Add Zach Zwinak to the mix – he is the only one who has been able to stay injury-free so far – and Penn State has a solid stable of five different-shaped running backs.
The problem is, none of them have breakaway speed.
“I think we know as a group we have a lot of versatility and a lot of good players in the running back room,” Day said Tuesday. “From the power back, to the more shifty guys, to the pass protectors to catching the ball, we have it all in that room.
“And I think we all know that and understand anyone's roles could change for any game.”
Let’s quickly review Penn State’s tailback carousel to date:
- Belton, a 5-foot-10, 202-pound sophomore who played wide receiver last season, opened the season as the starter against Ohio. But he suffered a high ankle sprain in the third quarter after gaining a career-high 53 yards on 13 carries and catching three passes for 16 yards and a touchdown in a 24-14 loss.
He has missed the past three games but returned to practice Monday.
“He looked decent, so we would anticipate him being ready to go for the game,” O’Brien said. “Billy is a guy that has good feet, good vision, and can catch the football. So it's good to have him back, because he's another change‑of‑pace type of running back.“
- Day, a 5-9, 193-pound fifth-year senior, is a former walk-on who was awarded a scholarship before the start of the 2011 season. He made his first career start in place of Belton the second game at Virginia, a 17-16 setback.
Day separated his shoulder in the third quarter after compiling a career-high 47 yards on 18 carries and snagging one pass for 17 yards, but he hasn’t played since.
“I’m feeling really good,” Day said. “I’m excited to have the opportunity to hopefully get back on the field and contribute.”
- Dukes, a 6-1, 245-pound redshirt junior who missed spring drills while focusing on academic issues, started in relief of Day at tailback in Week 3. He had 47 yards on 11 carries in Penn State’s 34-7 triumph over Navy.
He was limited to special teams duty against Temple Saturday because of a thigh injury.
- With Belton, Day and Dukes missing from the backfield, fifth-year senior Michael Zordich, a one-time linebacker and fullback who is 6-1, 240 pounds, got the nod at tailback against the Owls.
He compiled career highs of 75 yards rushing on 17 carries and caught four passes for 39 yards before departing in – you guessed it, the third quarter – with a bruised left knee.
Zordich said Tuesday he plans to play against the Illini.
“I took a hit, that’s all,” he said. “I’ll be all right for Saturday and for the rest of the season.”
- Zwinak, a seldom-used 6-1, 232-pound redshirt sophomore, filled in for Zordich against Temple and finished with a career-high 94 yards on 18 carries. He added one reception for 12 yards.
More importantly, he carried seven times for 45 yards on the Nittany Lions’ game-clinching field-goal drive with 2:29 to play in a 24-13 victory over the Owls.
"One thing coach O'Brien has made sure of is that everyone realizes that this is a team,'' Zwinak said. "I just want to do whatever role they give me to play and that's what I'm going to do.''
O'Brien’s tailback-by-committee approach carries even bigger implications this week with his top five backs at close to 100 percent.
“It's tough to use all five,” he said. “I definitely see us using two or three. Depends how they practice during the week.
“I went into their meeting (Monday) and told them, `Hey, look, guys, we got five guys that are good players, tough guys, love coaching them, so let's go out and practice well and we'll decide then as a coaching staff who's going to play on Saturday.' "
Because of all the uncertainty in Penn State’s backfield the first four games, the Nittany Lions rank last in the Big Ten in rushing, averaging 124 yards per game, and 94th among 120 teams in Division I.
But O’Brien is feeling much better about his tailback situation this week.