Editor’s Note: This is the seventh in a series previewing Penn State football, part of Onward State and StateCollege.com’s countdown of insight and analysis about head coach James Franklin and his team heading into the Blue-White Game on April 12. Read the previous stories here.
Today’s preview highlights a position rich in depth and potential, but it is one that is unclear at the top of the depth chart: running back.
Key losses: None
Key returners: Zach Zwinak (senior), Bill Belton (junior), Akeel Lynch (sophomore)
Depth chart: Zwinak and Belton shared time as the starter in 2013. Zwinak held the starting role at the beginning of the year, but good performances by Belton, coupled with turnover problems by Zwinak, gave the job to Belton mainly towards the end of the year. Lynch saw sporadic game time throughout the year; he played in seven of 12 contests but never earned the starting role. Lynch is starting at a disadvantage and will likely have to wait to become the full-time starter until the other two graduate.
Player to watch: Zwinak. There’s a reason that the senior started the 2013 season at the top of the depth chart. Despite the occasional long run, he isn’t known for his blazing speed. When healthy and confident, Zwinak is a workhorse that came within 11 yards of his second straight 1,000 yard season last year. Fumbling issues led to a lack of confidence toward the end of the season, with Zwinak himself telling the Altoona Mirror, “Every time I mess up a play, I think I am done.” Zwinak has proven that he’s capable of making plays, but have his ball handling skills improved enough to give him his starting job back? And if he earns it back, will he keep it? Spring practice will go a long way toward answering these questions.
Prediction: Just like last year, expect Belton and Zwinak to split time at starter. I think Zwinak will benefit from an off-season of work and time off from game action. He will improve his fumbling problems and rush for another 1,000 yard season. I also expect Lynch to get more consistent action, whether that means he lines up in the backfield or in the slot. No matter what happens, the Nittany Lions should be set at running back. This is possibly the deepest position on the team in terms of game experience, and if a player struggles or gets injured, it shouldn’t be a catastrophic loss for the offense.