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Position Battle: Making the Case for Each Running Back

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Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

Today's guest post is brought to you by incoming Penn State freshman and lifelong Nittany Lions fan Nick Page.

Heading into the 2014 college football season, a majority of the Penn State roster is up for grabs. Veteran players along with new players will strive towards starting and contributing jobs on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball. Many spots do not have a named starter as this time, but most prominently, the running back position is extremely competitive with three potential starters. The new staff headed by James Franklin and Run Coordinator/Offensive Line Coach Herb Hand have made it well known that the job is going to be a competition. As you likely already know, the contenders for the job are expected to be seniors Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton, and redshirt sophomore Akeel Lynch.

2013 Statistical Breakdown


Rushing Attempts

Rushing Yards

Yards PER Rush

Rushing TDs

Receiving: Catches, Yards, TDs

Zach Zwinak

210 Carries

989 Yards

4.7 avg.

12 TDs

3 catches, 27 yds, 0 TDs

Bill Belton

157 Carries

803 Yards

5.1 avg.

5 TDs

15 catches, 158 yds, 2 TDs.

Akeel Lynch

60 Carries

358 Yards

6.0 avg.

1 TD

0 catches, 0 yds, 0 TDs.


427 Carries

2150 Yards

5.0 avg.

18 TDs

18 catches, 185 yds, 2 TDs.

Zach Zwinak

Looking at each of the three contenders’ stats, you see that Zwinak and Belton obviously got the bulk of the carries in 2013. Zwinak was only 11 yards short of a second straight 1,000 yard season, but he also doubled his touchdown number, going from six in 2012 to 12 in 2013. The 21 year old senior was very successful in his two years in O'Brien's offense because of his ability to succeed inside the tackles and provide consistency. Zwinak is a solid collegiate running back, but he comes with limitations. As his yards per carry stat shows, he picks up the short yards. However, he is not a big play threat to where he will out run or power for 20-plus yards without being brought down. His speed is his main flaw (along with his fumbling issue), but he provides very little in the receiving game and provides limited upside. He’s likely the "safest" option of the three, because he’ll get his line regardless of how the line performs or how the offense is producing. If he were to earn the starting job you could bank on him being right around the 1,000 yard mark for the 3rd straight season, but likely higher if he gets a bigger bulk of the carries. The case for Zwinak - The sturdiest and most battle-tested of the the three backs, Zwinak brings is a known commodity. He may not turn blow the socks off your feet, but he is a experience, powerful back with statistics to back his name.

Bill Belton

A former Wide Receiver, Belton provides a unique dynamic for the Nittany Lion offense. Last season Belton got the start in 5 games, and totaled 803 yards rushing. His yards per carry was the highest of the two between Zwinak and him, the starters who received a large number of carries. Belton gets the "scat back" label and he does a lot for the team. Unlike Zwinak and Lynch, he gives Hackenberg a consistent set of hands of the backfield, along with added speed. In watching Hackenberg you see that he is quick through his reads, and will check down if need be...this check down often leads to Belton getting a look. Additionally, Belton is shifty elusive, and hard to get down in the open field, a dynamic not yet to be seen by the other two. Belton thrived in his first full year receiving a good deal of touches, and he prospered. To best use Belton, the new offense would be wise to get him more involved in the pass game, getting him more than 15 catches as is effective at gaining chunks of yardage with the ball in his hands. He may not be used the same as Zwinak would, but he serves a purpose. At worst I expect him to be a highly valued, change of pace or third Down back, because of his quickness and receiving skills.

Akeel Lynch

The wildcard of the backfield. Only receiving 60 carries during the course of the season, only getting carries in seven of 12 games and only five-plus carries in five games, he is more "unknown" than the others. Some of his numbers came in garbage time when PSU had a well established lead, thus he faced lesser competition. However, when he was in the game he was often very, very productive. Though he only scored one touchdown, he had the highest yards per rush average, and looked the part when he saw touches. He has by far the highest potential of the three, as he possesses a combination of speed, power and vision that Zwinak and Belton don’t possess. He’ll only be 20 at the start of season, at that point being more than a year younger than the others, and two years behind eligibility-wise. With his skill set, he would be a viable running back as he showed in limited appearances last year. Interestingly enough, Vanderbilt's Zac Stacy has a very similar skill set to that of Lynch, and the physical comparison is also there. The success of Stacy bodes well for Lynch and even if he doesn’t start this year, he should expect to be the 2015 starter.

* * * * *

Each running back brings a unique flavor. Zwinak is a slower, more powerful back who is best in between the tackles. Belton is best to get on the edge and let him use his quickness and elusiveness to evade defender in the open field, but should have limited touches up the gut. Lynch is the hybrid of group; an impressive combo of both speed and power which leads to versatility, but he is young and inexperienced compared to the others. The coaching staff can not really make a wrong decision, as each back has his pros and cons. A situation like this, with three talented backs, should be seen as a fantastic thing, especially considering the depth issues plaguing other portions of the roster. Like last year, it is expected that all three will get touches, so no matter who ends up seeing the starting reps will still probably be placed in the three-headed rotation.