On Average, Penn State Football’s Running Attack Needs More Than Just Zach
April 05, 2013 2:00 AM
by Mike Poorman
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Running backs Akeel Lynch and Bill Belton were dressed to impress for Penn State’s first few indoor spring practices.

Each had his jersey tied in a knot in the back, exposing a bare midriff full of abs that apparently spent the winter doing daily double doses of P90X. Their sleeves were rolled up and tucked in, exposing sets of biceps that would make even Marco Addis weep.

And when Belton flexed, his tattoos were a true flash of Billiance.

No. 1 (Belton) and No. 22 (Lynch) may look like studs. But No. 28 has already proven that he is one.

That would be Zach Zwinak, a 6-foot-1, 234-pound junior who ran for 100 yards in seven of Penn State’s final eight games in 2012. He finished with an even 1,000 yards by rushing 36 times for 179 yards – in neat quarter increments of 70, 22, 65 and 22 yards – in the season finale against Wisconsin.

Head coach Bill O’Brien intends on playing three-card stud in 2013. For different reasons. At different times.

“We have three very, very different skill sets in the fact that we’ve got Zwinak, who is just around 235, 240 pounds,” O’Brien said. “He’s a big, tough kid, very strong guy who had a great offseason in the weight room.

“Then you’ve got a guy like Billy Belton, who is not quite as big as Zwinak. He has good quickness. He can catch the football. He’s lost some weight (5-10, 199), he’s in better condition and we’re really looking forward to seeing what he does.

“Then you have Akeel Lynch, who had a tremendous offseason in the weight room. He improved his speed and his conditioning level. He’s somewhere in-between size-wise … between Zwinak and Belton, so he’s a little bit of both (6-0, 214).

O’Brien the head coach plans on pressing O’Brien the offensive coordinator about putting the trio in situations where each can succeed: “It will be fun to watch those guys. Then we’ll have to -- especially me -- I'll have to do a good job of putting them in the right spot to take advantage of what they do best.”

With Penn State’s practice No. 8 slated for Friday afternoon, the three have been far and away the lead dogs during spring drills. (Penn State is on the practice field four times next week: Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.)

Also running with the backs in the two practices I saw were State High’s Jack Haffner, sophomore Deron Thompson, redshirt freshman Dominic Salomone and Pat Zerbe. Guided by position coach Charles London, the group is typically tucked away unobtrusively at the west end of Holuba Hall. In pairs – a manager usually subs in – they start each practice with drills using red and yellow slippery-sleeve footballs, dog-walking-like choke chains and a modified version of whack-a-mole.

In part because there are so few, the running backs need to continually keep their noses to the grindstone. “Don’t work standing up,” London shouted at them one day last week. “You don’t run that way. You don’t practice that way.”

No matter how bad, or good, they look in practice, or how smooth and shiny and impressive Zwinak’s grand was, their challenge isn’t pretty. That’s because in 2012, Penn State’s running game was really a passing fancy.

Despite Zwinak’s breakout season, Nittany Lion rushers averaged just 144.3 ypg and 3.65 ypc last year. They ranked only ninth in the conference in yards per game – despite being No. 6 in carries per contest. And among the 124 schools in the BCS, Penn State led off the bottom third, at No. 83. (PSU was 35th in passing.) Of course, with an aerial circus that was powered by McG-to-ARob to produce 272 yards a game, the Penn State ground game didn’t need to carry the ball.

Maybe it was coincidence that when it did, Penn State usually won. In seven games of PSU’s 8-4 season, when the offense ran the ball more than it passed, Penn State won. Save for a second half against Ohio State when the Nittany Lions ran 16 times for three yards, Penn State’s ground game was remarkably consistent over the course of the season.

Penn State’s quarter-by-quarter rushing numbers in 2012, compiled a bit unscientifically if not methodically by going through each game’s stat sheets: first, 117 carries for 447 yards; second, 113-455; third, 127-416; and fourth, 117-407. The problem? That desultory 3.65 yards per tote, 11th out of the 12 Big Ten teams.

With a vastly inexperienced quarterback in 2013, the Nittany Lions – meaning BB, AL and ZZ -- are going to have to perform a lot better than last year. There is an onus on the offensive line as well, which must replace center Matt Stankiewitch and tackle Mike Farrell, but does return starters John Urschel, Donovan Smith and Miles Dieffenbach.

Belton, who was converted from wide receiver last spring and then advanced up the depth chart when Silas Redd transferred, had his good moments – especially his 103-yard, three-touchdown performance at Iowa. But he gained just 25 yards over the remaining five games.

Lynch hit a bad stretch as well, when he was charged with a misdemeanor after an offseason incident in his dorm. O’Brien downplayed the situation, and Lynch has been practicing all spring – showing the bulk and form that resulted in 2,136 rushing yards as senior at St. Francis (N.Y.) High School.

Given the presence of a healthy Belton and with Lynch no longer wearing his redshirt, don’t look for Zwinak to get more than 42.7 percent of the team’s carries that he had last year (203 of 475). O’Brien’s history in the NFL with the Patriots suggests that he is most comfortable mixing and matching.

In O’Brien’s five seasons (2007-2011) in New England learning The Belichick Way, the Patriots employed eight different running backs that finished at least one season in the team’s top three in carries.

There were three Patriots running backs in the top three in carries on the team for only one season: Stevan Ridley, LaMont Jordan and Fred Taylor. Three backs were in the top three for two seasons: Danny Woodhead, BenJarvis Green-Ellis and Laurence Maroney. And only two backs were in the top three for three of O’Brien’s five seasons in New England: Kevin Faulk and Sammy Morris.

In New England, very little stays pat.

Expect the same for the Penn State running game in 2013.

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