Penn State will open spring ball on Monday with a wide-open depth chart at just about every position on offense, outside of quarterback and left tackle.
Expect heated competition along the offensive line, at tight end and wide receiver, despite a lack of depth at this stage.
One of the most watched position battles will be at running back—one of the more talented and dynamic positions on the entire team.
The new coaching staff will be saddled with the responsibility of sorting through the 1,000-yard rusher in Zach Zwinak, the dynamic Bill Belton and the youthful Akeel Lynch.
My 5 to keep an eye on this spring: RB Akeel Lynch, CB Trevor Williams, DT Tarow Barney, G Brendan Mahon, K/P Chris Gulla. Thoughts? #PSU— Audrey Snyder (@audsnyder4) March 11, 2014
It's hard to imagine a more diverse group of running backs in a single competition.
Zwinak was recruited out of high school as one of the top fullbacks in the country. He's a workhouse-type back with 1,989 yards and 18 touchdowns in the last two seasons. Despite fumble issues, "Z28" is a known commodity and a perfect closer late in close games.
However, we've probably seen his ceiling. His top-end speed is that of a converted fullback, and he had just three catches in 2013.
Bill Belton's skill set is the polar opposite of his bruising counterpart.
After playing primarily quarterback in high school, he was recruited as a wide receiver and spent his freshman season between wideout and Wildcat quarterback. During winter workouts in 2012, Bill O'Brien moved Belton to running back, and the move has paid off on several occasions.
Last season, he rushed for more than 800 yards and five touchdowns on 5.11 yards per carry. His best performance was a 36-carry, 201-yard performance in a tight game against Illinois. He was also a critical part in the win against Michigan, catching 15 passes out of the backfield.
He's not going to run many linebackers over, but he has made several miss and can run away from them once he does.
Belton has been the "lightning" to Zwinak's "thunder."
Meanwhile, redshirt sophomore Akeel Lynch provides a combination of both thunder and lighting.
247Sports rated him as a 4-star running back recruit—the 16th-best running back in the class of 2012.
After redshirting as a freshman, he made his college debut in Week 2 last season against Eastern Michigan. He rushed for 108 yards on 13 carries and scored one touchdown, running through, around and from defenders.
Two weeks later, he ran for 123 yards on 14 carries against Kent State and looked ready to push Belton and Zwinak for carries.
Then he never did.
Despite being the fastest of the running backs with formidable power and vision, he had issues with pass blocking and didn't record a carry in five of the last eight games.
Who will lead Penn State in rushing yards in 2014?
The slate is clean now, and the new staff has no loyalties to past performances. For the first time since stepping on campus, Lynch has a legitimate shot at earning carries and perhaps winning the starting job.
The Canadian native must improve his blocking technique, and his pass-catching abilities are a question mark. However, he could very well be the best all-around ball-carrier on the squad.
That was during his freshman campaign while he was plugging along on the scout team.
While there's no doubt that Belton and Zwinak should both have roles in the offense, Lynch has NFL-type skills and added muscle mass in the offseason, which should make him a more powerful runner.
If he is going to take over as Penn State's primary running back in 2014, he'll need to take the first step this week.
Rest assured, if Lynch emerges as the go-to back, he will have earned it. Belton and Zwinak aren't backing down from the competition, and they have experience and success at their disposal.
All stats courtesy of CFBStats.com.