Although the “OR” that popped up between Zach Zwinak’s and Bill Belton’s names on the Penn State depth chart on Tuesday would seem to indicate a running back controversy, that simply isn’t the case.
Whichever back gets the starting nod when Penn State travels to Columbus for a Saturday showdown with No. 4 Ohio State — be it the ever-improving, shifty Belton or the grind-and-pound workhorse Zwinak — doesn’t really matter a whole lot to Penn State coach Bill O’Brien.
As has been the case, O’Brien plans to use both of them.
“We’ll continue to rotate guys in at that position and both of those guys will play against Ohio State,” O’Brien said.
After a critical fumble helped Michigan gain momentum in the third quarter of Penn State’s last game Oct. 12, Zwinak was pulled and replaced by Belton. The junior handled all but one carry in the second half and shouldered all of the rushing load through four overtimes.
Meanwhile, Zwinak stayed on the sideline. It was his seventh fumble in the past 12 games and sixth lost to the other team. But the fumble hasn’t deterred Zwinak, senior guard John Urschel said.
“To play this game long, you have to have a short memory,” Urschel said. “He learns from it. We’ve been doing things to focus on good ball control but at the end of the day he’s moved on.”
O’Brien noted Zwinak’s improvement so far in practice.
“I think Zach has practiced well this week,” O’Brien said. “He came out and had a good practice (Monday). Great kid, tough kid and he’s going to play obviously.”
But Belton’s emergence has made it difficult for Penn State coaches to remove him from games. Meanwhile, Akeel Lynch hasn’t played in the past two games due to Belton’s effectiveness in multiple scenarios.
Not only has Belton improved his rushing — he’s already exceeded his eight-game numbers from last season by 10 carries and 124 yards — but he’s become a weapon in the passing game, too. Belton is handling more duties in pass protection and has become a viable red zone target with two touchdown catches among his eight receptions for 86 yards.
“Billy’s improved quite a bit,’ O’Brien said. “He’s another guy that’s in that category of a guy that’s really worked hard to improve and this year has taken advantage of his playing time when he’s been out there.”
Jordan Lucas isn’t too far removed from his own recruitment. But he’s taking plenty of joy reading about offers other to other players — specifically ones who are taking up Nittany Lion coaches on offers to play at Penn State.
“As far as this upcoming class, the 2014 (class), I pay attention and I know exactly who they’re recruiting,” Lucas said. “When we get a new commitment, I see it. It’s all over Twitter so I definitely am in-tune with that.”
Twitter was abuzz on Sunday night when three-star running back Johnathan Thomas announced his intent to switch his commitment from Maryland to Penn State. Thomas’ commitment — which is non-binding until he signs a Letter of Intent — was the 14th in the current class.
At 5-foot-11 and 205 pounds, Thomas is the top recruit in the state of Massachusetts. He followed four-star tight end Mike Gesicki, of Southern Regional in Manahawkin, N.J., by three days in committing to Penn State.
“As the season is going on, I really don’t pay too much attention to that but I do know names and I do check out some of the tape,” Lucas said.
Meyer questions targeting rule
O’Brien singled out Ohio State cornerback Bradley Roby — along with linebacker Ryan Shazier — as two playmakers on the Buckeye defense.
Against Iowa, Roby was singled out, and then booted out of the game after delivering what was deemed by the officials to be an illegal helmet-to-helmet hit in violation of the NCAA’s new targeting rule. By rule, Roby was ejected in the first quarter after he crashed helmets with Hawkeye tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz.
Had Roby’s hit occurred in the second half, he would’ve been required to sit out the first half against Penn State.
“I think that the NCAA and everybody is going to want to re-look at that rule,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said. “We are very concerned about player safety. We have gone to the nth degree with adjusting practice. Any rule for the safety of players, no question we support it. However, that was a game-changer. To take one of your better players out of the game, that impacted that game.”
Ladonis earns run-on spot
Long snapper Zach Ladonis pulled off an improbable feat earlier this fall.
He went from supporting the Penn State football team from the Beaver Stadium student section to roaming the Nittany Lion sideline in a blue and white uniform.
Ladonis, a 6-foot-2, 225-pound freshman from Nescopeck, was the lone player to make the team after Penn State held run-on tryouts on Sept. 18. O’Brien estimated between 30 and 40 players tried out. Ladonis, a former Berwick Area High player, got in to the Indiana and Michigan games on special teams.
The run-on tryouts — which were composed of three sessions: a compliance meeting on Aug. 27, an informational session on Sept. 7 and the actual tryouts inside Holuba Hall on Sept. 18 — yielded other serviceable players, however.
“I think there were three or four guys that stood out to us,” O’Brien said. “And then what happens is, are they academically able to be on your team based on their schedule and all the things they have to clear NCAA-wise. So I think a couple of those guys weren’t able to come out for the team so maybe they’ll come out in the spring, whether it’s a DB or linebacker or running back or a kicker.”