Bill Belton's career at Penn State has been a whirlwind of highs and lows involving position changes, academic issues, frustration and stellar on-field performances.
After arriving in State College as a wide receiver, Belton saw action in different roles that varied from kick returner to wildcat quarterback. In his first year, he carried the ball 13 times for 65 yards. He also caught one pass, threw two incompletions and returned a kick for 15 yards.
It was clear that Belton had the athletic ability to play big-time football, but the old regime wasn't exactly sure how to use him. Having an all-conference running back in Silas Redd may have played a part in that confusion, but that would work itself out.
Upon arriving in Happy Valley, new head coach Bill O'Brien and his staff immediately placed Belton at running back after seeing him workout over the winter.
The decision seemed to work out perfectly for the true sophomore over the next few months, as Redd transferred and Belton emerged from summer camp as the starting running back. The depth chart would soon change, though.
After rushing for 53 yards on 13 carries in his first career start, Belton suffered an ankle injury against Ohio that would all but bury his sophomore season. By the time he returned a few weeks earlier, Zach Zwinak had made his way up the depth chart and was en route to a 1,000 yard season as the Nittany Lions' new feature back.
After October 1st, Belton had more than 10 carries just one time, but he used that opportunity to prove that O'Brien was right in moving him to running back, and he showed why he won the starting job over the summer. In a night-game victory over Iowa, Belton carried the ball 16 times for 103 yards and three touchdowns.
Over the next five games, Belton battled injuries and carried the ball just 11 times for 25 yards.
The 2013 season opened in similar fashion with Belton backing up Zwinak. He received only six carries in the opener against Syracuse while serving as the primary kick returner. The next week, Belton had another breakout performance, going for 108 yards and two touchdowns on just nine carries.
Still, Zwinak was the work-horse with the 1,000 yard season under his belt and would be called on in critical times. That was until Zwinak's old fumble issues started appearing at inopportune times.
According to TeamRankings.com, Zwinak had 223 offensive touches in 2012 and fumbled the ball five times. That's one fumble every 44.6 touches. While that rate isn't terribly alarming, it's certainly higher than any coach would like.
Zwinak's 2013 rate is worse. And the timing has been worse, also. Zwinak has averaged a fumble every 33 touches this year. The first was late in a close loss to UCF. Zwinak's second fumble was early in the second half against Michigan, and it caused O'Brien to sit him down for the rest of the game while Belton took every remaining carry. Following that game, Belton was named the starter over Zwinak. The message obviously didn't get through to Zwinak, as he fumbled on his third carry in the next game—a loss at Ohio State.
O'Brien says RB Bill Belton is much improved. More patient, good vision, catching passes. But RBs must win starting job every day.— ESPN Big Ten (@ESPN_BigTen) October 29, 2013
Belton responded against Michigan with huge runs down the stretch, including the game winning touchdown. He then rushed for 98 yards against the Buckeyes, the second most OSU has allowed this year.
Perhaps most importantly to O'Brien, in 199 career touches, Bill Belton has only been a part of one turnover.
Unsurprisingly, he'll start again this week when Penn State hosts Illinois.
O'Brien on Bill Belton: "He's our starting running back, and he's done a nice job." ZZ's fumbling caught up with him, apparently.— Josh Moyer (@ESPNJoshMoyer) October 29, 2013
After arriving in the spring of 2011, Bill Belton has grown up in many ways. He has become a true team player, embracing this year's "running back-by-committee" approach that O'Brien has taken. Still, like any competitor, Belton wants to play. He has tasted success, and he has shown that he's capable of producing. He also knows that it can all go away at any time.
With his experience, maturity and skill set, Belton is in a prime position to become Penn State's feature running back down the stretch and can take the reigns on his own future this weekend. Provided he doesn't drop the ball, that is.