Blue-White Countdown / 13 Days: Running Back Preview
Editor’s note: This is part of a daily series counting down to Penn State’s Blue-White Game April 18.
Penn State’s running game woes in 2014 were well-documented, but not because of a lack of talent in the backfield. Akeel Lynch, Bill Belton, and Zach Zwinak (before his career-ending injury) combined for 1,300 plus yards and 13 touchdowns, a solid total despite failing to live up to its preseason “three-headed monster” expectations.
Entering 2015, Penn State’s backfield will suffer the departure of two senior leaders, but a crop of talented true and redshirt freshmen are ready to take their place. With Lynch and his career 5.0 yards per carry taking over as the full-time starter, coupled with what’s sure to be a much improved offensive line, Penn State’s backfield is an intriguing position to watch as we approach Blue-White.
Bill Belton, Zach Zwinak, Cole Chiappialle (transfer)
Make no mistake, the loss of Belton and Zwinak will be a huge blow to the Lions’ backfield. While Zwinak’s senior season was cut short after a promising start, scoring three touchdowns in his first six games, and Belton was eventually replaced by Lynch as the lead rusher, they represented a pair of reliable ball-carriers. Though they had to learn John Donovan’s scheme just like everyone else, they each played four seasons with the program, providing veteran leadership to younger players like Lynch. Zwinak had his share of fumble issues and Belton was inconsistent from week-to-week, but together they provided the goal-line rumbling and pass catching ability the Lions’ offense so desperately needed.
While not breaking any records, Belton leaves Penn State with the longest touchdown run in program history, a 92-yard scamper against Indiana, and the game-winning score in the four-overtime classic against Michigan. Zwinak, a fan-favorite during the Bill O’Brien era for his toughness and nose for the endzone, leaves with nearly two 1,000 yard seasons, coming up just 11 yards short in 2013. Cole Chiappialle, who burst onto the scene with a breakout performance in the 2014 Blue-White game, leaves after a 22-carry, 68-yard season to Division-II Shippensburg University.
Nicknamed “Big Maple” for his Canadian roots, Lynch enters the new season as the Lions’ primary ball-carrier, finishing his sophomore year with 678 yards on 147 carries (4.6 avg) with four touchdowns.
Following Zwinak’s injury, Lynch stepped in immediately to pair with Belton in the backfield. Despite showing an impressive balance between Zwinak’s power and Belton’s elusiveness, he found a hard time finding yards behind Penn State’s porous line. In his first three games after the road loss to Michigan, Lynch was held to less than 3 yards per carry with zero touchdowns. However, Lynch flashed his stunning potential at the end of the season, rushing for 130 yards (7.2 avg) and a touchdown in the win over Temple followed by a 28-carry, 137-yard, one-touchdown performance against Illinois the next week. In the season finale against Boston College in the Pinstripe Bowl, Lynch rushed for 75 yards (4.4 avg), including a dazzling 35-yard rush.
“I think Akeel, the way the season ended with him, I think he’s done some nice things,” Franklin said prior to spring practice.
Following the second week of practice, Franklin said Lynch is “looking like the workhorse we thought he could be.” But it remains to be seen who will join him in the backfield. Which brings us to…
Biggest Strength – Competition
A healthy dose of competition is good for business, whether it’s in the workplace or on the football field. With four-star recruits Saquon Barkley and Andre Robinson set to join the team this summer in addition to redshirt freshman Nick Scott, Mark Allen, and Jonathan Thomas, as well as senior Brandon Johnson, there’s a fierce battle brewing to be a key contributor alongside Lynch once the season gets kicks off at Lincoln Financial Field against Temple on Sept. 5.
“Excited to see what [Nick] Scott, [Brandon] Johnson and [Mark] Allen are going to be able to do,” Franklin said before the start of spring practice. “Scott and Allen redshirting, and Johnson is actually our biggest, strongest, fastest guy on our team. Going to see if it’s going to translate.”
Johnson, a 6-foot-1, 229 pound bruiser who joined the team mid-season in 2013 as a walk-on, has seen the bulk of his action on special teams with no carries to date, but could step into the power back role Zwinak leaves behind.
“There are some guys coming in, as well that are going to be able to create some challenges and competition during camp,” he added. “We’re excited about the guys we have now and what they’re going to be able to bring to the table. I know they’re hungry. I know they’re hungry.”
Franklin described Thomas as “the big, physical guy,” and Allen as “the quick scat back,” while labeling Scott a combination of the two. During winter workouts, running backs coach Charles Huff highlighted Scott three times as the top-performer of the day, with Lynch and Allen named twice and Johnson once. Through two weeks of practice, it appears Scott and Allen have taken the reigns of the competition.
“I think Nick Scott is really showing some flashes,” Franklin said. “I think Mark Allen’s even done some nice things.”
Biggest Weakness – Experience
While having a bounty of young talent is sure to tickle the fancy of the offensive coaching staff, there is always a concern about how young players will perform and live up to expectations in their first few years of college. Though running back has a much smaller learning curve than quarterback or safety, there is still a rigorous education process to go through that involves reading defenses, understanding offensive line adjustments, and picking up blitzes, as well as learning patience behind a new group of blockers. Not to mention, how they’ll actually play with the ball in their hands.
Offering an update on the position during the second week of practices, Franklin expressed his pleasure watching the running backs mature, with the potential to become a much more potent attack in 2015.
“There’s less hesitation, we’re getting downhill, we’re keeping our shoulders square, and we’re just so much stronger and more explosive than we were last year,” Franklin said. “I’ve been pleased with that group. We still have a long way to go, and some of the young guys we were excited about are showing some pretty good signs.”
Yes, the loss of Belton and Zwinak will hurt. And yes, the depth is much stronger and deeper than its been in many years, despite the inexperience. But where Penn State’s group of running backs shine is in their seemingly limitless potential.
Start with Lynch. Though he led the team with the fewest yards since Austin Scott in 2003, he’s maintained a consistently high yards per carry average throughout his young career, and only stands to improve after another offseason. While it remains to be seen how he’ll handle an expanded role, he’s already shown he’s capable of being the offense’s bell cow, receiving 30 touches for 172 total yards against Illinois.
Though we’ve yet to see Saquon Barkley and Andre Robinson in a Penn State uniform, you can’t help but marvel at their athletic prowess. Barkley, 2014’s “Mr. PA Football,” enters Penn State as the 14th best running back prospect in the country, and his highlight tape is dripping with excitement, including a fun little habit of leaping defenders. Robinson, a Bishop-McDevitt product, is also a top-15 running back nationwide and the third-best prospect in Pennsylvania.
Along with the potential impact freshman, you have three solid redshirts from last season to go along with a powerful runner that might just be the best athlete on the team. We might not see a 1,000 yard rusher emerge from this group, but I’d say Penn State’s backfield is in good hands this season with a number of talented playmakers.
Image: Bobby Chen