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Patience pays off for Penn State's Bill Belton

| Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2013, 10:06 p.m.
Barry Reeger | Tribune-Review
Penn State running back Bill Belton (1) gains yards against Illinois during their game at Beaver Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 2, 2013, in University Park.

It took 22 months, but Bill Belton's transition to running back finally is complete.

All it took was a little patience.

Four days after delivering Penn State's first 200-yard rushing performance in 11 years, Belton acknowledged Wednesday that switching positions upon the arrival of coach Bill O'Brien in January 2012 “wasn't easy.”

Though he was a receiver during his freshman season and a quarterback and defensive back in high school, Belton wasn't going to balk at the wishes of his new coaches.

“It was something that was going to help the team, so I was all for it, no questions asked,” Belton said. “(But) things took some time. Things didn't go as well as I thought they would that first year. But everything's worked out.”

Belton, at last, appears firmly entrenched as the Nittany Lions' featured back heading into Saturday's noon game at Minnesota (7-2, 3-2). Belton has had 85 carries for 384 yards and two touchdowns (averages of 28.3 carries and 128 yards) over the past three outings.

“It takes a while when you move from receiver to running back,” O'Brien said. “He's a much better running back now than he was at any point last year.”

Penn State's previous coaching staff searched for ways to take advantage of Belton's athleticism. He returned kicks initially before lining up in the wildcat after Tom Bradley was named interim coach.

O'Brien refused to watch prior tape on any of the Nittany Lions' current players before he first watched them work out, preferring a clean slate instead. Belton caught his eye.

“I saw a kid that was 5-11, 190 pounds, a thick-looking guy,” O'Brien said. “I said, ‘What position is he?' They said he was a slot receiver and a wildcat quarterback. I think I said that, looking at our running back situation at that time, ‘Why don't we try him at running back?' ”

O'Brien repeatedly gushed about Belton at multiple opportunities as the 2012 season approached. In the opener against Ohio, Belton had the look of fulfilling his coach's expectations; he scored a touchdown in the first quarter and gained 66 yards on 16 touches.

But a high-ankle sprain suffered in the second half kept him out of the ensuing three games, affected him physically the remainder of the season and derailed the momentum he was getting in assimilating into the rhythm of being a running back.

Zach Zwinak emerged and gained 1,000 yards in the equivalent of nine games. He entered this season as the unquestioned starter.

Falling, in effect, to second string didn't take away from Belton's offseason work on improving certain skills specific to running backs: instincts, footwork, cutting technique.

“And being more patient in the running game,” Belton said, referring to the almost-unteachable ability to wait for the line to open a hole.

“He's much more patient now.” O'Brien said.

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

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