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Penn State is able to spread the wealth among its running backs

| Sunday, Sept. 22, 2013, 10:21 p.m.
Penn State running back Bill Belton (1) tries to get past Kent State defensive lineman Andrew Christopher (80) during an NCAA college football game against Kent State on Saturday, Sept. 21, 2013.
Barry Reeger | Tribune-Review
Penn State running back Bill Belton looks to elude Kent State defensive lineman Andrew Christopher on a gain to the 1-yard line in the third quarter Saturday, Sept. 21, 2013, in University Park.

UNIVERSITY PARK — Zach Zwinak played the part of reliable, workhorse running back last season for Penn State.

When Bill O'Brien turned to him for that role, though, it was more out of necessity.

“I believe in using a lot of backs,” O'Brien said Saturday. “I really do.”

Looking at his coaching history, O'Brien certainly does. So even when Zwinak gains almost 1,000 yards in a nine-game stretch as he did to close out 2012, O'Brien tends to gravitate more toward a backfield-by-committee approach.

That's what he showed Saturday in a 34-0 win over Kent State: Zwinak had 15 carries, Akeel Lynch 14 and Bill Belton 13. All three produced, too, combining for 293 yards from scrimmage and four touchdowns.

Expect O'Brien to continue spreading the wealth as the Nittany Lions (3-1) embark on Big Ten play.

“I know some teams want to use one back; sometimes we do and we try to go with the hot back,” O'Brien said. “We think that all three of these guys are good football players. They're practicing well. It's a competitive spot. We think all three deserve to play, so we rotate them in there.”

Zwinak, Lynch and Belton each have led the team in rushing yards during a game through four contests this season. That's similar to last season, when four different players led the team in rushing in a game during the first four games.

After opening the 2012 season as no better than the Lions' fifth ball-carrying option, Zwinak seized an opportunity and was given the lion's share of the Lions' carries from a Sept. 22 win against Temple all the way through to the season finale against Wisconsin (22.2 carries per game in that stretch).

“To have multiple running backs is a big part of the game because everybody has fresh legs,” Zwinak said. “Everybody does something a little different. We're a tight group of guys and always pushing each other.”

Zwinak's 2012 stretch drive featured role is the exception, not the rule, for O'Brien's coaching style. Before last season, O'Brien had coached full-time at the major college or pro level for 14 years. Just twice — the New England Patriots' BenJarvus Green-Ellis in 2010 and Georgia Tech's Joe Burns in 2001 — had he been on the staff of a team that had a 1,000-yard rusher.

More common are backfield timeshares. O'Brien's coaching history is littered with them:

• The 2008 and '09 Patriots each had four players within 452 yards of the team rushing lead, and the 2011 Patriots had three within 316 yards of each other.

• The two seasons O'Brien was on the Duke staff both featured three backs within 207 yards of the team lead.

• In 2004 with O'Brien as running backs coach, Maryland had Josh Allen (144 carries) and Sam Maldonado (138).

• O'Brien's first season as a full-time staffer in 1998 featured four Georgia Tech backs within 27 yards of each other: Burns, Philip Rogers and Charlie Rogers.

“We trust Coach O'Brien to do the right thing and call the right plays and use the right running back,” Lynch said. “As a competitor, you always want to be out there, but I'm always going to be ready to go, and when those guys go in, I'm cheering them on.”

Chris Adamski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at cadamski@tribweb.com or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.

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