Akeel Lynch: Rising To The Occassion
Redshirt sophomore running back Akeel Lynch has been waiting for his chance in the spotlight. It hasn’t always been easy. With two seniors ahead of him, he was firmly entrenched as Penn State’s third option at running back on the depth chart.
That all changed in an instant. Zach Zwinak’s season was over due to injury, and Lynch’s number was called. The young ballcarrier accepted this bittersweet challenge, and hasn’t once looked back.
Take one look at the man teammates call “Big Maple” — a homage to both his physique and native Canada — and you can just tell he’s a running back. Built like a small truck with a 6’1, 215-pound frame, and possessing innate athleticism that coaches covet, Lynch’s physical makeup sets him ahead of most players. Aside from his physical appearance, there is one more distinct characteristic that sets him aside: his number.
Lynch dons the number 22, a number that has been worn by some of the greatest players in Penn State’s illustrious football history. When you think of the number 22, legends like Heisman winner John Cappelletti and Penn State’s all-time leading rusher Evan Royster come to mind. Lynch knows the significance of the number and thinks of those who came before him every time he suits up.
“Every time I put it on, I remember the guys before me,” Lynch said in an interview with 247 Sports. “Remember, now I know that I’m the last guy wearing this number, so I definitely want to make my imprint on this number.”
Lynch certainly left an early impression, delivering some big performances in 2013 against Eastern Michigan and Kent State. His highlight of the year came against Eastern Michigan, where he reached the end zone on an 18-yard carry for his first career touchdown, all on the day that John Cappelletti’s number was retired by the university. He ended up rushing for 358 yards and one touchdown during a redshirt freshman campaign that saw him begin to find his niche in Penn State’s offense early on, only to see his playing time dwindle as the season continued.
With seniors Bill Belton and Zach Zwinak slated as the first and second options at running back, Lynch knew that his season would again begin with him mainly on the bench, but he always kept that passion burning within him to finally break through.
“Being a young guy, I just have the mentality that whenever your chance comes, you have to be ready,” Lynch said after the game against UMass in September. “So every day in practice, I just conduct myself like a starter, so that I’m always ready. We have a lot of talented guys on this team, so I’m just waiting for my turn, and when my time comes, I’ll just try and seize the opportunity.”
While waiting in the wings, Lynch used his time behind the two seniors to both learn from them, and apply elements from their game into his own, maximizing his potential.
“Belton’s strength is making people miss, and I use that trait a lot,” Lynch said. “Zach’s ability is running people over, so I try and combine that with my build, my size, and my speed to put that into my own game.”
Lynch’s season changed completely after the Ohio State game, when Zach Zwinak went down with a season-ending injury. Instead of playing a reserve role, Lynch would now be counted on to share the backfield with Belton and shoulder the load. Lynch stepped up to the plate, and accepted his new responsibility. Finally, his time had come.
James Franklin had drawn the ire of some fans for essentially neglecting to use Lynch while the running game continued to struggle — it’s easy to argue that he is Penn State’s most complete back. After all, he only totaled 23 carries through the first six games of the 2014 season. Since Zwinak went down, however, Lynch’s number of carries skyrocketed to 65 over the course of the last four games. Lynch has made the most of the increased workload, rushing for 266 yards and a touchdown in that four-game window. Keep in mind that Lynch has been running behind an offensive line that has struggled mightily over the course of the year.
The best part is, Lynch is only beginning to give fans a glimpse of what the future holds.
With Zwinak and Belton departing after next season, the door has been swung wide open for Lynch to take hold of the reins and burst into the spotlight as Penn State’s feature back. With young talent coming in to bolster the offensive line next season, the sky is the limit for Lynch.
Akeel Lynch is a perfect example of the phrase, “Patience is a virtue.” He waited for his chance to shine for over two and a half seasons, but now that it’s here, all of that learning and hard work has finally paid dividends.
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