“What’s going on with Penn State running back Bill Belton?”
That was the headline to this Philly.com article from Nov. 6, 2012, and it was a fair question. Belton opened Bill O’Brien’s first season as the starting running back after moving into the position from wildcat quarterback/wide receiver, but got hurt against Ohio in the season opener. He returned to starting in the Illinois game four matchups later, but in the follow-up game against Northwestern, his numbers didn’t reflect that he started the game — Belton had four carries for 12 yards, while Zach Zwinak had 28 for 121.
By the Purdue game in November, Belton was an afterthought at best. Zwinak had usurped the starting role and Belton had one carry in the team’s last four games.
Now, the rising senior sits front and center on Penn State’s team poster for 2014, is the man responsible for one of the most satisfying touchdowns ever at Beaver Stadium, rushed for more than 200 yards in a game for the first time in more than a decade in a Penn State game, and was sent to Big Ten Media Day to represent Penn State.
His trek back to a major role on the team was well-documented — he attributed much of his improvement to the dedication of O’Brien, and, of course, his own work ethic. In 2013, he gained 5.1 yards per carry to total 803 with five touchdowns to boot.
But why stop there?
“I’m going into my third year playing running back. Last year I said I was at home, but I feel like I’m picking up on more things to take me from a good level to an elite level,” Belton said.
Belton said new running backs coach Charles Huff put on a “running back school” for the players in which they viewed more NFL film than they did under O’Brien’s staff. The backs watched Arian Foster, C.J. Spiller, and Fred Jackson film, and Belton said that was a big help.
Further, the similarities between James Franklin’s staff’s running scheme and O’Brien’s should only help Belton develop.
“Every team has its power schemes, its zone schemes,” Belton said. “There are little variations, but it’s not that different.”
Penn State’s three-headed backfield trio has also contributed to Belton’s success. Both he and Zwinak are on this season’s Doak Walker Award watchlist for the country’s top running back, and rising redshirt sophomore Akeel Lynch averaged the most yards per carry on the team last year (6.0). All three bring something different to the table, too — Belton is the finesse guy, Zwinak knocks people over, and Lynch is some mix of the two.
But according to Zwinak, you’d be surprised at how Belton can bulldoze in practice.
“Bill and Akeel, they can throw their weight around too,” Zwinak said with a laugh. “But I’ve asked Bill for advice so many times on certain things and we all bounce ideas off each other and help coach other.”
“I can [knock over tackles], I just don’t do it,” Belton said with a smirk. “If you don’t gotta bang up your body, why should you? Coach Huff says you only get one body, so you might as well take care of it.”
It won’t be a piece of cake for Penn State’s running game to improve in 2014 — five of its opponents were in the top 16 in rushing defense last year. But Belton’s displayed the confidence to make his senior year another memorable one.