Returning Starters: 2
Key Departures: FB Pat Zerbe
RB Zach Zwinak (Senior) or Bill Belton (Senior)
FB Jack Haffner (RS Sophomore) or Dominic Salamone (RS Sophomore)
Highlights from 2013:
Penn State ranked in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten (7th) and nation (57th) in rushing per game, despite breaking in a true freshman quarterback and a few new pieces on an offensive line that needed some time to gel. Neither Zwinak nor Belton could hold on to the job for an extended period of time--ball security issues continued to be Zwinak's Achilles heel, while Belton always seemed Bill O'Brien's second choice. Whether both will be well integrated in the offense this year is a lingering question; BOB seemed to prefer to have one back get the bulk of the carries than have the two split time in the backfield. But both proved capable of being "the guy," with Zwinak coming just 11 yards shy of his second-straight 1000-yard season.
The depth issues that have taken their toll elsewhere on Penn State's roster--especially at offensive tackle and linebacker--haven't made much of an impact at the running back position. Not only do Belton and Zwinak return to form a potent one-two punch, but sophomore Akeel Lynch, who had two 100-yard games, is back. Penn State will also welcome three true freshman backs, redshirt candidates all, though none are on campus yet.
The biggest issue with this unit continues to be ball security. Zach Zwinak finally put on some gloves, but he's been a fumbling machine the last two years. Belton hasn't struggled as much, but coughed up the ball enough to lose his grip on the starting job midseason, even after a 36-carry, 200-yard performance against Illinois. Penn State finished second-to-last in the conference with 12 fumbles lost, and most came from the backs.
Also, these runners, especially Zwinak, will only go as far as the offensive line can take them, and that unit's struggles early in 2013 limited the efficiency of the ground game. With so many young and inexperienced pieces thrust into major roles in 2014, the backs could struggle while the line finds its footing.
What to look for in the Blue/White game:
Belton and Zwinak are mostly known commodities at this point, but it'll be important to see how each of the two look running behind an already inexperienced offensive line missing one of its few known commodities in Miles Dieffenbach for, at the very least, the spring and summer. Herb Hand is known to prefer a power- and zone-run heavy system, which may better suit Zach Zwinak's wrecking-ball style than Belton's patient, one-cut proclivities, but the one thing James Franklin has stressed is an offense that will adjust to the personnel. We'll see what that means for the running back position.
I'd keep an eye on Akeel Lynch--who looked the part whenever he got carries last season--but also on the fullbacks. Without Mike Zordich, Penn State lacked for a lead blocker last year; Pat Zerbe's replacements are a pair of smallish fullbacks who have, between them, only a modicum of experience. It wouldn't be a shock to see tight end Jesse James or Brent Wilkerson--finally recuperated from a back injury--in an H-Back role out of the backfield, given Penn State's depth and talent at tight end.
Lastly, it'll be interesting to see whether James Franklin and John Donovan want to use a talented athlete like DeAndre Thompkins out of the backfield; the true freshman speedster is already on campus and could work in a gadget-player role as he integrates into the offense.