While the NCAA scholarship reductions have led to a lack of depth and talent at some positions for the Penn State Nittany Lions, the cupboard isn't bare at running back. Between Bill Belton, Zach Zwinak and Akeel Lynch, Penn State has three guys who are capable of getting valuable touches.
The hierarchy of Penn State's backfield this season hasn't been too cut-and-dried. After a 1,000-yard campaign last year, it seemed that Zwinak had established himself as the top dog of the group. But with fumbling issues starting to become a concern—he's fumbled eight times over the last 13 games—Belton has seen an increased role.
Freshman Akeel Lynch has been fun to watch this year but has played limited snaps because Zwinak and Belton are in front of him. All things considered, none of the three have greatly distanced themselves from the pack.
While Penn State has three solid options at running back right now, their leashes are short because of the depth at the position. Head coach Bill O'Brien acknowledged this during his press conference on Tuesday.
"If there's one guy making mistakes, obviously, the other two guys are going to play more," he said.
Although Belton and Zwinak could technically leave for the NFL after this year, the chances of that are highly unlikely. Penn State could have a very crowded backfield yet again in 2014.
Next year, a shake-up to the rotation could be in order. Even though Zwinak did have that impressive 2012-13 campaign, Lynch is a very promising young player who could provide a lot to the offense. He fits the mold of an electric running back that's capable of breaking big runs and making plays
After his 108-yard performance against Eastern Michigan earlier this year, Ben Jones of StateCollege.com compared him to former Nittany Lion Silas Redd:
All game Lynch showed why coaches think that he can be a crucial part of the future of Penn State's offense. Ducking a diving, sliding through tacklers, Lynch was in many ways a reminder of former-Nittany Lion Silas Redd who ran with a similar combination of speech and power.
Being that Lynch is more of a complete back, his workload should increase drastically in 2014. Expect him to have a more prominent role in Penn State's offense.
As for Zwinak, he's had his issues holding on to the ball and his production hasn't mirrored that of last year. But one thing that he has excelled at is his ability to pick up tough yards. A classic north-south runner who isn't afraid of contact, Zwinak's the guy who O'Brien relies on down near the goal line. PennLive's Audrey Snyder even dubbed him a "touchdown vulture":
Through four non-conference games Zwinak has a team-leading eight rushing touchdowns, with five of them being scores of two yards or less. The redshirt junior is playing the role of touchdown vulture on many of these scoring plays, entering the game to pick up the short yardage while backs Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch have done the heavy lifting for most of the drive.
He's a thick back who is very hard to bring down. With other guys picking up yards on early-down situations, Zwinak could find himself heavily relied on as the Nittany Lions' 3rd-and-short back next year.
Now, this doesn't make Bill Belton the odd man out by any means, but his role could change next year.
Originally, he was recruited by Penn State as a wide receiver before switching to running back when O'Brien got the job. As Kevin McGuire of Examiner.com pointed out in a 2011 article, Belton was expected to play in the slot: "Belton will play in the slot receiver position, similar to the way Penn State prefers to use Curtis Dukes but his versatility as an athlete makes him both an offensive weapon from any point on the field and perhaps a small project to mold him in to the ideal position."
Belton will see time in the backfield, but it's not crazy to think he could also play a decent amount at slot receiver, too. Consider this: Outside of Allen Robinson and Brandon Felder, no other Penn State wide receiver has made that much of an impact this year.
With Felder graduating and Robinson likely headed to the NFL, the wide receivers currently on the roster have accounted for a total of only 26 receptions in 2013. Freshman Eugene Lewis leads that group with 11 catches.
After him? Belton, with nine. Penn State's youth at the position presents an ideal scenario in which Belton can get involved in a different facet of the game.
It's a theory that might not come to fruition, but it's definitely something to think about. With the projected depth at wide receiver, Belton's experience and a crowded backfield, it might be O'Brien's best option of getting the most playmakers on the field at a given moment.
Outside of those three, Von Walker is the only other running back on the roster who might see some meaningful snaps in 2014. The freshman "run-on" has had seven carries this season while being utilized primarily in the return game.
Penn State currently has three running backs verbally committed to their 2014 recruiting class—Johnathan Thomas, Nick Scott and Mark Allen. While trying to recuperate from the NCAA's scholarship reductions, it would be a surprise if they aren't all redshirted next year.
The triple-threat of Belton, Zwinak and Lynch should make up one of the stronger rushing attacks in the Big Ten in 2014. While they'll all see valuable playing time next year, there's a good possibility it could be in different situations and even at different positions.