Last week we started our offseason look at the performance of the Nittany Lions various positions in the 2012 season, and a glimpse at what may come next fall when the 2013 season kicks off in the Meadowlands against Syracuse. Our first report took a look at the offensive line, and came to a B+ grade. Today, the runningbacks are next up.
In a preseason riddled with questions all over the field, the runningbacks were near the top of almost every list. What was once viewed as the strength of the offense immediately became another huge void when Silas Redd left for USC. Bill O’Brien didn’t miss a beat, immediately proclaiming sophomore Bill Belton the new starter.
Belton was off to a solid start in the season opener against Ohio, before suffering a high ankle sprain that would sideline him until the Illinois game. Derek Day would take over against the Bobcats. The Lions would muster just 94 yards on the ground that day. The following week against Virginia, it was Derek Day who got the start, and Curtis Dukes backing him up. 121 yards on 42 carries was the ending line. The revolving door in the offensive backfield kept spinning against Navy with senior fullback Mike Zordich starting and Dukes again getting 2nd string carries. It was not until the Temple game that sophomore Zach Zwinak, who would of course end up rushing for exactly 1,000 yards, drew significant carries (18 for 94 yards), although Zordich actually drew the start that day.
It was that Temple game that finally brought some stability to the position, not only in terms of the personnel, but in the type of rushing attack Penn State would have the remainder of the season. For all his athletic ability, no one ever expected Bill Belton to be a guy that would pound it between the tackles and put his shoulder down. Belton is at his best in space, and on the edge, as we saw in the Iowa game. Zwinak’s straight ahead style immediately clicked with the offensive line, and Zordich became the guy O’Brien turned to when Zwinah needed a breather.
For all the impressive stats put up by Zwinak once he became the starter, ball security remained an issue, highlighted by a crucial lost fumble as Penn State was driving for a score in Lincoln. Zwinak was also never a real threat as a receiver out of the backfield, especially when compared to Belton. Watching O’Brien’s offenses in New England, he loves to get the ball to his backs through the air, either directly out of the backfield, or motioning them out. As we mentioned with the offensive line last week, the Lions offense struggled with the blitz, especially in the Ohio State loss. None of the backs were consistently reliable in buying McGloin time when the defense brought the extra pressure.
Looking ahead to the 2013 season, Zordich and Day’s graduation are the only known losses, although it is widely expected that junior Curtis Dukes will move on as well. Zwinak and Belton are both expected to return, as will freshman Akeel Lynch, who redshirted this year. It is hard to imagine Zwinak not being the starter going into the season, but expect Lynch to get a long look as well. Belton presents an interesting question, as he is arguably the most athletic player on the Lions’ offense, but never really settled in at runningback. The ankle injury certainly played a part, as high ankle sprains are notorious for lingering, but with Zwinak’s emergence, and Lynch’s ability, it’s hard to figure out where the carries will come from. With that said, a new starter at quarterback will mean a heavier reliance on the running game. I expect Zwinak and Lynch to get the bulk of the carries, but Belton to become a threat at receiver, and even a 3rd down back in passing situations.
As for the grade, because of the ball security, and blitz issues, it’s again hard to give out an A. But a position that looked like a borderline passing grade after the first three weeks became much more reliable as the year went on, and the future looks promising as well. For that, give the backs a B.
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