Over the past year, the entire Penn State football team has experienced change and new beginnings, but from an individual standpoint, there might not be a player who has undergone more role changes than Bill Belton.
The current sophomore went from a seldom used freshman receiver to a wildcat quarterback at the end of last season. In the spring, Bill O’Brien switched Belton’s position to running back. He picked it up well and was the backup to Silas Redd heading into the summer. Everyone is well-versed in the ensuing chapter by now. Redd heads west for the University of Southern California following sanctions, and Belton is named the starter and is expected to see upwards of twenty five carries a game.
The next development was never part of the plan. An ankle injury suffered in the third quarter against Ohio took Belton out for the rest of the opener and the following three games.
In an unconventional fashion featuring three different leading rushers in three games, the running attack made progress in his absence. Belton returned against Illinois and received 16 carries, but Zack Zwinak led the way with 19 while Derek Day, Curtis Dukes, and Michael Zordich combined for another 10.
While Belton is listed as the top running back on the depth chart, it appears that this committee approach is here to stay. “I think that’s changed a little bit,” said Bill O’Brien at his weekly Tuesday press conference.
The change makes sense as other running backs on the roster have been able to take advantage of increased playing time and show off their skill set when called upon. “We have got some good guys back there, and it’s really competitive in practice. It’s more about that 10 to 15 [carry]range right now. Things change as the season goes on,” added O’Brien.
Things have certainly changed within the first month of the season. The Nittany Lions are running the ball more often and more effectively, and they are doing it with more bodies.
How does Belton feel about all of this after he was supposed to be the guy?
“It’s not frustrating. We’re a team, and different guys can complement each other,” said Belton. While the injury was tough to deal with after so much hype to the season, he does not appear bothered by the slightly decreased workload. “As long as we get a team win, we’re happy,” added Belton.
If it seems like Belton’s role has changed a lot, look across the field on Saturday at Northwestern’s Kain Colter. Become familiar with spotting the #2 purple jersey because he may not line up at the same position on consecutive plays. Often a quarterback, sometimes lined up as a receiver, and fresh off a 161 yards, 4 touchdown rushing performance against Indiana, the versatile junior does it all. It is something Belton used to do when he was in high school, but he knows that times have changed many times over since those days.
“My future is at running back,” said Belton. Back from injury, Belton is ready for his future to begin even if it means a little less carries than originally planned.
Press Conference Notes:
- When asked about recruiting, Bill O’Brien made a nice pitch to reporters mentioning that 40-50 high school players have been at every home game so far and scouts from every NFL team are visiting practice.
- O’Brien also made a plea to students to arrive early for the student whiteout on Saturday calling Northwestern the best team Penn State will face to this point.
- Belton and Glenn Carson both referred to Saturday as a “must-win” game.
- Michael Mauti and O’Brien have formed an impressive player-coach relationship over the past nine months. O’Brien said it began on January 7th when Mauti asked him about plans for the strength and conditioning program. “I knew right away he was a passionate football player. I knew about his family,” said O’Brien.
- O’Brien said he has received several calls from “non-Penn State people” telling him how much they are enjoying watching the team play.
- It sounds like Pete Massaro (shoulder) will play this Saturday for the first time since the Virginia game meaning only Mark Arcidiacono (foot) and Nyeem Wartman (knee) are out. That is a rather thin injury report compared to a few weeks ago.