Penn State Football: Experienced Running Back Corps Will be Key In 2014
It's not exactly a secret Penn State needs Christian Hackenberg to play well this upcoming season.
It's also not a secret that Penn State needs Christian Hackenberg to stay healthy in the process.
But for Hackenberg to be able to do either of those things, he's going to need some help. He'll need help from his offensive line, his targets down the field, and the players lining up behind or next to him nearly every play.
The running backs.
According to Phil Steele, the college football preview guru of record, Penn State's running back corps of Zach Zwinak, Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch are rated the 11th best in the nation. Considering that all three have multiple years of experience and in the case of Belton and Zwinak multiple games as the primary back, it's not surprising they're rated highly.
The key now is cashing in on that experience on a team that Steele rates the least experienced in the conference and 102nd least experienced team in the nation.
While nobody really knows how James Franklin and John Donovan are going to attack defenses this upcoming season, it's hard to imagine that Zwinak, Belton and Lynch won't be a big part of that equation. As Franklin has said on several occasions, understanding your strengths and weaknesses is a big part of being successful.
So as fans await another impressive campaign by Hackenberg, it isn't entirely unreasonable to think that the ground game could be the first mode of attack this season rather than a complementary aspect to the offense. Especially if the wildcat gets involved like it did during the Blue White game.
“That will be a part of our offense. How much? I’m not sure,” Franklin said of the wildcat. “It just kind of depends how camp goes. Every other offense you run, the defense has an advantage of plus-one on you, So I think it makes sense. We’ve had a lot of success with it in the past. So it will be a part.”
Penn State's offensive line is going to be an area of concern whether you're talking about the running game or pass protection. Fortunately, offensive line coach Herb Hand has proven he is capable of putting together units that get the job done. This might be best illustrated by looking at the past nine seasons at Vanderbilt. During that time, three of the top four rushing performances happened when Hand and Franklin were in charge.
While it's hard to equate one team's success as proof that things will go just fine for another team, it makes sense that the offense could revolve around Zwinak and company as much as Hackenberg and his receivers. The wildcat is essentially a shortcut designed to get the ball to explosive players like Belton and Lynch. Couple that with the ground-and-pound running style of Zwinak and suddenly defenses have to worry about two different running attacks as well as Hackenberg's arm.
This isn't to say Penn State is going to suddenly abandon the pass and become a wildcat gimmick offense overnight. Rather, Zwinak, Belton, and Lynch are going to play a big role in the Nittany Lions' success this year. They have to, and Hackenberg will have to hope they do.