Bill Belton: Overcoming The Odds On and Off the Field
Bill O’Brien often mentions his players as having some high highs and some low lows over the course of a football season. For Bill Belton, that mantra applies to his life both on and off the field.
One year ago, Belton was struggling with academics and missing workouts to try and get his grades up. When Belton wasn’t dealing with school work, he was trying his hardest to transition to a brand new position. O’Brien saw Belton during his first workout as the team’s head coach, having never watched film on the Penn State team before to come in with a clean slate, and decided to make him a running back.
“When I saw Billy, I saw a kid who was 5-11 and maybe 185 pounds and just a thick-looking guy,” O’Brien said. “I asked what position he was and [the coaches] said he’s a slot receiver and a Wildcat quarterback. And I said I think that looking at our running back situation we should try him there.”
Belton saw some improvements during training camp, starting to come into his own as a running back and embracing his new role. It wasn’t easy, but he made the most of the situation and tried his best to do whatever the coaches asked of him.
“I was all for it,” Belton said. “If they thought I could help the team [at running back], I was up for it, no questions asked or anything. It took some time and things didn’t go as well as I thought they would initially. The transition wasn’t easy, but I found a home at running back and everything worked out.”
At least that’s what it seemed like before everything came crashing down during the first game of the 2012 season. Belton looked good early in the game, running strong, catching a few balls, and hauling in a receiving touchdown before spraining his ankle and leaving the game.
The injury only sidelined him for three games, but he didn’t look the same when he came back, and Michael Zordich and Zach Zwinak had already leap-frogged him on the depth chart, essentially ending Belton’s opening campaign at his new position.
Instead of feeling bad for himself, Belton kept his head up and made sure never to doubt himself, something he says his parents instilled in him from a young age.
“When things hit the fan I always believed in myself,” Belton said. “My parents taught me to always do that.”
Belton buckled down both on and off the football field, honing his game while simultaneously spending the summer getting on track academically. While he says that school is still something he struggles with, both O’Brien and Belton have said that he is in a much better place now than a year ago.
“Billy has really improved in the classroom,” O’Brien said. “It’s a work in progress for him academically but he works hard at it. It always makes you feel good when good kids do well.”
Belton isn’t just doing better in the classroom; he entered the 2013 season looking like an entirely different player. While he was more of an instinctive running back in the limited playing time he saw in 2012, Belton looked to be a better coached player at the start of this season. He was playing smarter football — slowing down to read defenses before making cuts or hitting a hole.
“He’s a much-improved player,” O’Brien said. “He really is. He’s more patient in the running game. I think he understands how to watch film better. I think he’s a better teammate. I think he’s a smarter player. In our system, one of the hardest things to learn for a running back are the protections, and he’s able to learn those and does a good job with it.”
Belton came out of the gate fast, making the most of his limited carries early in the season. Against Eastern Michigan Belton racked up 108 yards on just nine carries, scoring two touchdowns in the game. He ran the ball just five times the following week, and picked up 36 yards on the ground.
By the fourth game of the season, Belton was receiving double-digit carries, but still sat behind Zwinak on the depth chart and was more of a change-of-pace back. That is until the Michigan game came along and changed the course of the season for Belton and Penn State’s running back corps.
On the first play of the second half with Penn State leading 21-10, Zwinak fumbled the ball, which the Wolverines recovered and returned for a touchdown. Belton took over ball-carrying duties for the rest of the game, and it would be an understatement to say that he made the most of the opportunity, especially when overtime came around.
Through four overtimes, Christian Hackenberg did not complete one pass. Bill Belton was the offense. As we all know, the instant classic four-overtime matchup ended with Belton carrying the ball for the game winning touchdown.
Belton didn’t jump off the stat sheet, but with Zwinak’s fumbling issues letting Michigan back into the game, the starting job became Belton’s to lose. Against Ohio State, he was one of very few bright points for Penn State as he carried the ball 22 times for 98 yards.
If there was any doubt that Belton was Penn State’s primary running back, that doubt was put to rest last Saturday against Illinois. O’Brien called on Belton more than any other player on the offense, giving him a career-high 36 carries for a career-high 201 yards, making him the first Penn State running back in 11 years to eclipse 200 rushing yards in a game.
“Billy B. makes us look good,” senior guard John Urschel said after the Illinois game. “He did a fantastic job. I’m proud to have him as my running back.”
“It feels great to have a game like this after the struggles of last year,” Belton said. “Once I got that [school] stuff together, I could stop worrying about it so much and that helped me focus on football. All of my improvements are coaching. Instincts got me to where I was last year. Coaching got me to where I am today.”
Belton has the same calm demeanor no matter what the situation. He has said that he’s enjoying the on-field success but stayed humble and gave all of the credit — yes, all of the credit — to the offensive line. Even when pressed after the Illinois game about his masterful performance, Belton wouldn’t relent.
“It’s very rewarding but its not over yet,” Belton said. “It’s basically just beginning.”