Heading into his senior campaign, Penn State running back Bill Belton will have yet another offseason of adjustments to make.
For the third time in four years, Penn State's offensive scheme will undergo a makeover. Belton's role was different in each of the previous eras, and chances are it will be different yet again.
As a freshman in 2011, Belton was used primarily out of the Wildcat formation by offensive coordinator Galen Hall. Although recruited as a wide receiver, Belton played quarterback in high school. His familiarity in the shotgun helped the staff find ways to get him on the field.
When Bill O'Brien took over, his position changed completely. In 2012, Belton was moved to running back during spring practice—just months prior to Silas Redd's transfer to USC. Even with little time to get acclimated to his new position, Belton still found his way into the starting lineup to begin the year.
After being limited that season due to injury, Belton bounced back impressively in 2013. Here's a quick look at his career numbers to date:
|Bill Belton's Career Stats|
Belton increased his yards per carry average in 2013 by nearly one yard, despite a workload influx. According to cfbstats.com, that average was good for sixth in the Big Ten among running backs with at least 150 carries.
The depth chart in 2014 will be more crowded than it was last year. Zach Zwinak, the team's leading rusher the past two seasons, returns. Redshirt sophomore Akeel Lynch will also push for significant playing time as well.
So how will head coach James Franklin choose to utilize the shifty Belton?
For starters, there's the obvious running back-by-committee system. Belton and Zwinak are different backs—Zwinak is a downhill runner, while Belton prefers bouncing his runs outside. Lynch, as simply as possible, is a mix of the two. The differences in style of play complement each other well.
All three running backs have to give a good first impression to the new coaches. They're basically starting over—while tape doesn't lie, there's still not a significant separation between first and third string.
With Zwinak and Belton both seniors, I find it hard to believe either one pulls ahead of the other at this stage of the game. Lynch looks to be the future, but not as the primary back just yet.
In the run game, Belton's role will likely be similar to the one he had last year. Franklin will ride the hot hand just like O'Brien did—and given Zwinak's fumbling history, this could bode well for Belton.
Yet even when he's not running the ball, Belton could still play a key role. There's the possibility he sees time in the offense as a receiver.
Penn State in thin on experience at wide receiver following the loss of Allen Robinson. Four talented players were brought in by way of the 2014 recruiting class, but their ratings don't negate the fact they're still freshmen. Belton's versatility could help alleviate some growing pains at the position.
As previously mentioned, he was recruited by Penn State as a wide receiver—a slot receiver, specifically. Bouncing him out to that spot would give quarterback Christian Hackenberg another threatening target to throw to. Couple that with Zwinak or Lynch in the backfield, and the Nittany Lions become tougher to defend.
Belton caught 15 passes for 158 yards and two touchdowns in 2013. If you exclude tight ends, he then becomes the team's second-best receiving option (statistically) from last year, behind only Geno Lewis.
The screen game is an obvious wrinkle in any offense, but shifting Belton out into the slot would create additional mismatch problems. With the versatility Belton possesses, Franklin could get real creative with how he decides to use him.