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PSU To Institute Running Back By Committee

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Running back Zach Zwinak tries to run through everyone in his path, but will his carries decrease with a healthy Bill Belton in Penn State's backfield? Photo by Eric Francis/Getty Images.
Running back Zach Zwinak tries to run through everyone in his path, but will his carries decrease with a healthy Bill Belton in Penn State's backfield? Photo by Eric Francis/Getty Images.

Utilizing multiple running backs, particularly ones with different styles, forces opposing defenses to pick and choose how to prepare for each running back in a limited amount of time.

That’s one reason why running back-by-committee backfields have become more and more prominent at every level of football, but Penn State didn’t really embrace that philosophy last season, mostly due to only one of their top four running backs being healthy the entire season.

Given Bill O’Brien's one season as offensive coordinator at New England — three running backs split carries and gained 1,459 yards on the ground in 2011 — a running back-by-committee backfield could very well be on its way to Happy Valley.

The two running backs fighting for — or maybe the more appropriate word would be sharing — touches will be Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton. Zwinak led the Nittany Lions with 1,000 rushing yards last year after starting the season fourth on the depth chart. Belton was supposed to be Silas Redd’s heir before an ankle injury sidelined him for the majority of the season.

The best part?

These two running backs are as different as can be, so you know O’Brien is just savoring the opportunity to pick apart defense with the running game as much as the passing game. In fact, O’Brien did have them split carries in the three games that both were healthy. While Zwinak gained 194 yards on 47 carries, Belton had 194 yards on 42 carries in games against Illinois, Ohio State and Iowa.

Expect more of the same in 2013 with these two backs.

Zwinak runs a like a bull. If there was a Jim Brown School of Running Backs, Zwinak would be valedictorian. If you’re in his way, he’ll never run around you, just through you. As Brown once said, “If you’re a football player, you don’t run away from anything physical.” Zwinak doesn’t just believe in that philosophy, he carries it out.

Belton is ... well, nothing like Zwinak. He’s a quick, small East-to-West back that avoids contact if he can. That’s not to say Belton isn’t a physical back. He can lower his shoulder. But he utilizes exceptional agility and speed that Zwinak lacks. He can also be used as the quarterback in wildcat formations. Still, he faces two obstacles he hasn’t been able to avoid. Belton was oft-injured last season and also displayed poor protection of the ball as it often hanged low near his hip rather than high and tight.

If Zwinak and Belton go down, and we all that’s possible after last season, Akeel Lynch and Deron Thompson would get their first touches in a Penn State uniform. While Lynch possesses a blend of size and speed, Thompson is a quick, agile back.