UNIVERSITY PARK — Bill Belton trots out of a recent practice huddle and stops at an unfamiliar spot in Penn State’s goal line offense.
The junior — who had already taken his turns high stepping through various obstacles, catching passes out of the backfield and taking basic hand offs and pitches — gets set split out wide, takes a few stutter steps off the snap and looks back for the pass. As Belton snaps his route to the inside, the ball is batted down at the line before it can give away its trajectory and intended receiver.
Belton quietly turns back toward the huddle. But coach Bill O’Brien breaks up the routine and sends position players on their way. Belton heads with the running backs, no longer a newbie at the position but still very much searching for his role.
“I just want to be a factor with the team,” Belton said. “Everyone has expectations coming into the season but I just want to do my job as a teammate and just basically continue to get better on the practice field each day.”
It has become an indefinite outlook for the New Jersey native.
As a freshman in 2011 Belton gained late season recognition as a shifty gimmick player after Penn State unveiled a Wildcat offense in which Belton took the direct snaps. His skills as a standout high school quarterback were put to use as Belton gained five yards per carry. But his 13 attempts were limited to the final three games.
When Bill O’Brien took over before last season he took a look at Belton and declared the then-wide receiver a running back based on his stout build and running ability. Belton’s backfield debut against Ohio began with promise — he rushed for 53 yards and caught a touchdown pass — but it ended in the third quarter when Belton sustained an injury. He sat with his left ankle wrapped in ice the rest of the game.
It would keep him out the next three weeks. When he returned as a complement to Zach Zwinak in Week 5, he seemed rejuvenated, rushing for 70 yards on 16 carries against Illinois. As Zwinak took on his heaviest load to that point against Northwestern, Belton got only four carries against the Wildcats. He had one big game in him however and torched Iowa for 103 yards and three touchdowns. But the rigors of the season had taken their toll on his still-ailing ankle and Belton saw just 10 carries against Ohio State and one in the final three games.
The pain took away his most dangerous quality — his ability to change direction in a split-second.
“All the downfall from last year, the injury helped me mature as a person and a player,” Belton said. “Basically I learned a lot from that. Just going out there, practicing hard. You can never think you know it all because you don‘t. And just basically paying attention to detail.”
Belton admitted he didn’t think he was ready to be a feature running back when Silas Redd announced his transfer from the team last summer. But at that point Penn State’s list of would-be ball carriers featured mostly unfamiliar names save for one — Belton, the Wildcat specialist.
Although he had experience running the ball, the majority of his past carries came as a quarterback. While he starred under center for Winslow Township High School, he passed for 2,000 yards and rushed for 1,000 more in two straight seasons. Belton had never learned the nuances of playing tailback at the collegiate level.
“I had a feel for playing running back when I was younger and I thought I had a good idea of how playing running back was,” Belton said. “But listening to Coach O’Brien and Coach (Charles) London, they taught me some more things that helped me become a better running back.”
Teammates who’ve watched him closely insist Belton has made good on those coaching tips. He’s leaner and stronger, now checking in at 205 pounds, up from last year’s playing weight of around 200. He’s quicker, too. Teammates note how Belton has looked explosive running through tackling dummies.
He’s taken on more, too, like lining up as a wide out, catching more passes out of the back field and stepping up in pass protection.
“He’s playing fast, he’s playing smart, he’s playing more physical than he’s ever played,” center Ty Howle said. “He’s had a tremendous camp.”
Although O’Brien labeled Zwinak the team’s starting tailback for now, the second-year head coach will be vigilant about monitoring his running back corps. Last season Penn State used five different running backs before Zwinak distanced himself as the primary ball carrier over the past four games.
O’Brien is counting on Belton to be an even bigger asset this season.
“I’ve had a few heart-to-hearts with Billy,” O’Brien said. “I really think a lot of Billy and I think Billy has a bright future.”
Belton relied on his coaches’ advice and criticism for guidance. Their positive words soothed his soul while their harsh ones forced him to focus.
“You’ve got people in your corner that always tell you to keep your head up but I didn’t get down on myself,” Belton said. “The coaches knew what I was capable of. I knew what I was capable of.”
While his output in the demolition of Iowa last season provided a glimpse of what Belton could bring to the table, Belton’s goal is to do so consistently.
So is he a gimmick player best utilized in a package tailored to his skill set? Is he an every-down running back? Is he a change-of-pace runner who will just spell his teammates? Is he a dynamic threat in the open field? Will he have an impact on the return game?
Belton said he doesn’t feel handcuffed to one role in particular. He’s taking all of the above.
“Honestly, I wouldn’t know how to describe my style,” Belton said. “Unpredictable. I can do a little bit of (everything). I still have people that think I can’t run between tackles and do a lot of that stuff. But I’m just going to wait until this year to prove them wrong.
“Hopefully I can get a chance to show all the things I can do.”
Follow Travis Johnson on Twitter @bytravisjohnson