PSU poses triple threat backfield
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UNIVERSITY PARK — Zach Zwinak juked away from a defender. Bill Belton ran through an arm tackle. Akeel Lynch did a little of both.
The top three running backs on Penn State's depth chart made their presence felt during Saturday's 45-7 pasting of Eastern Michigan. Some of them not how you'd think.
“Zach is more of a downhill runner … but today he made a guy miss, and man, did that have me excited,” the shifty Belton said.
“I kind of made, like, a little bit of a move,” the 240-pound Zwinak said sheepishly. “I don't know how it looked — hopefully not too bad.”
Lynch, a freshman, showed promise in producing with his first-career carries. He figures to add to a Nittany Lions' running attack that centers around juniors Zwinak and Belton. The three combined for 259 rushing yards, an 8.9-yards-per-carry average and five touchdowns.
After the game, coach Bill O'Brien was characteristically ambiguous in whether the Nittany Lions would feature all three running backs against higher-quality opponents.
While seizing the starting job last season, Zwinak averaged 22 carries over the nine games in which he played significantly. He had 24 of the running backs' 30 carries during the season-opening win against Syracuse.
But O'Brien spread the wealth against Eastern Michigan, limiting Zwinak to seven carries, while Belton had nine and Lynch 13.
The varying talents of the Lions' top three backs provides flexibility for O'Brien to be creative in how he uses them.
“We have a great group of backs. Zach, Bill and Akeel all complement each other very well,” receiver Allen Robinson said. “When we have all three of them going like we did (Saturday), coach has choices in how to roll with them.”
Belton (5-foot-10, 205 pounds) is the speedster who makes people miss. Zwinak, 35 pounds heavier and 2 inches taller, is the bruiser who runs them over. “I think I'm right in the middle of them,” said the 6-foot, 211-pound Lynch.
Belton and Zwinak might appear to be incompatible styles, but that doesn't mean they can't learn from each other.
“One thing I wanted to work on this year was being more physical and being more of a downhill runner,” Belton said. “Me and Zach exchanged things and picked up a few things.”
A converted receiver, Belton was limited to 308 yards from scrimmage last season due to injuries.
Belton and Zwinak figure to be the perfect complement, with Lynch mixed in to vex defensive coordinators.
“We just want to run the ball so that the offense is able to move down the field,” Zwinak said.
Central Florida (2-0) brings the nation's No. 15 run defense to Beaver Stadium for a 6 p.m. game Saturday. The yardage will be more difficult to come by than against 108th-ranked Eastern Michigan.
“Coach O'Brien always does a good job with his players, and (Saturday) was just a game where everyone got his touches and everyone got a piece,” Belton said. “I was definitely happy to do some different things today — but there's no telling what next week calls for.”
Chris Adamski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.
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