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Penn State Football: Running Backs Aplenty, But Roles To Be Filled Behind Lynch

by on April 01, 2015 6:00 AM

Penn State has a changing of the guard at running back this season as longtime backfield aces Bill Belton and Zach Zwinak have graduated and moved on to the next phase of their careers.

While Akeel Lynch will return to the fold as the primary back this season, after being a bit of a third wheel in the equation the past few seasons, it's unclear how he will fare with a larger number of carries.

His stats suggest that the Lynch era will be productive, but he will still have to prove himself.

A solid running game is key to keeping Hackenberg on his feet and healthy, so this isn't a position to overlook, especially when it comes to finding the best pass blocker of the bunch. If that doesn't sound as important as running the ball, just watch the last play of Penn State's loss to Ohio State last season.

Who's Gone:

Bill Belton, Zach Zwinak, Cole Chiappialle

The losses are obvious from the experience perspective with Belton and Zwinak out of the rotation. Penn State fans will never get to see how Chiappialle could have performed as a power back, but his transfer will give him a lot more time to play with more traditional talent on the way.

Penn State's losses at this position are a blessing and a curse. You lose two backs who know their roles, but at the same time Belton didn't seem to fit into the Franklin equation and Zwinak was only really functional when the offensive line could block. Getting two new faces into the mix moving forward might not be a bad thing, but losing veterans is never a positive.

Who's Here:

 Mark Allen, Brandon Johnson, Akeel Lynch, Nick Scott, Johnathan Thomas

Lynch is the next man up but who fills in behind him is the question of the hour. None of the remaining backs have had a carry and none of them stand out as a measurable improvement over their counterparts.

That might not be how it is playing out in practice, but on paper they are all unknowns.

James Franklin has had some good words for Nick Scott so far this spring but Thomas and Allen both have claim to the role of second running back with some speed and power to back them up. Right now Scott gets the edge for two reasons: Franklin mentioning him by name (a rarity on most occasions) and the fact that his 5-11, 201 pound frame sounds right for the job. Mark Allen at 186 pounds doesn't sound like power in the making, but it wouldn't be the most bizarre thing to happen around these parts.

Biggest Strength: Depth

In an odd kind of way Penn State has a lot of depth at running back this year. With Lynch the only established back so far, there is essentially an opening behind him that could be filled by four different players all of whom have to prove themselves.

Essentially Penn State has four running backs of equal value on the roster. If one doesn't work out, there are three more who could do the job. Time will tell who is most capable of getting the job done, but for now Penn State has a bunch of options, and that's not a luxury found on rosters in many places.

Biggest Weakness: Overall Experience 

Despite having a lot of assets it's not as though Penn State returns a lot of talent that fans know will deliver in a key situation. It doesn't take too many third-and-shorts to figure out who can get it done. But until that is sorted out, Penn State is going to have to rely on the unknown at important junctures.

On the other hand, every future Hall of Fame player had to have his first carry. So inexperience doesn't automatically breed issues. And if nothing else, just look at Sam Ficken's career.


Penn State has someone reliable in Lynch anchoring the group and a favorable schedule and plenty of talent to find out what happens next. That's not to say that this position isn't a pressing need, but there is enough talent to figure this one out. Somebody is going to be a household name on Penn State's roster who wasn't last year. There is a good chance the name(s) of Nick Scott or Mark Allen will become very familiar.



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Ben Jones covers Penn State football and basketball for He's on Twitter as @Ben_Jones88.
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