Bill Belton has undergone quite the transformation since his days as a true freshman on the Penn State campus.
After struggling through two mediocre seasons — one wherein he was dogged by injuries — the New Jersey native has finally found his place on the Nittany Lion football team as one of the offense’s most versatile weapons.
He’s become a much better student — a year removed from sliding dangerously close to academic ineligibility and into obscurity inside Bill O’Brien’s dog house, Belton is on pace to graduate in four years with a degree in recreation, parks and tourism management in the spring.
The usually quiet, reserved Belton who keeps a pretty low-key public profile has begun to embrace the spotlight more and more. He’s on the little pocket schedules Penn State handed out at Big Ten Media Days in Chicago and was one of the Nittany Lions’ chosen player representatives there where he did more than three hours worth of interviews. Belton was also chosen to adorn the back of the team’s media guide where he’s captured in action, high-stepping up and down the bleachers at Beaver Stadium.
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He even got to switch numbers from ‘5’ that he wore as a freshman to his favorite ‘1’ he pulls over his shoulder pads every practice now.
A thoughtful person whose thin, arching eyebrows raise up when asked a question as he deeply considers and carefully chooses the words to respond, Belton still doesn’t smile much. For him, none of his progress is good enough.
“There’s still things that I want to improve on,” Belton said. “I might’ve had a decent year last year. There are some things that I did well but I want to take it to another level. I want to be on a national scale. I want to be a back that everybody talks about. I’m constantly working on those things and pushing myself to be better.”
He’s reminded every day that he hasn’t earned the fanfare he desires.
At the start of spring practice, running backs coach Charles Huff came to Belton with an article he printed out. It was list of the top running backs as ranked by national college football writers. Belton’s name was nowhere on there. Belton took it, hung it up over his bed where it currently hangs.
“As soon as I wake up, that’s the first thing I see,” Belton said. “It’s telling me I’ve got a long way to go.”
Belton said he’ll keep it up until his career is over. With one year to go, he believes there’s plenty of time to crack that list and make a name for himself among the country’s elite ballcarriers. If he can build on his progress from last season where he gained 1,036 all-purpose yards and scored seven touchdowns, Belton’s teammates believe the sky’s the limit for him.
“It’s tough practicing against a guy like him because he is so shifty,” linebacker Mike Hull said. “Every time you’re getting ready to tackle him you have to make sure that you have good body position, a good base so you don’t miss that tackle. Whenever you do, it’s probably the worst feeling in football when you miss a tackle.”
But it took a while for Belton to find his shiftiness.
After switching positions during O’Brien’s first year, Belton struggled with his new responsibilities as a running back in 2012. Ankle injuries slowed his progress and by the end of his sophomore season, the player who had showed flashes of playmaking ability as Penn State’s signal-caller in the Wildcat formation in 2012, had managed just 263 yards on 60 carries and only nine catches for 50 yards.
So Belton came into the 2013 spring period obsessed with finding his niche. His grades suffered as a result and O’Brien sat him down for a few heart-to-hearts. But while Belton was struggling in the classroom, O’Brien was continually supporting him in public. O’Brien was also reminding the running back he wouldn’t see the field if his grades didn’t improve.
“I was young. Just like any other young player, they go through a little rough patch with school and stuff like that and he helped me mature quickly,” Belton said. “I have the utmost respect for Coach O’Brien. He helped me achieve and see things so much differently with college football.”
The two Bills shared a unique bond, a mutual respect and serious, contemplative personalities that meshed well, Belton said. The trust Belton developed for his coach for keeping faith in him as he worked with academic counselors to improve his classwork was echoed by O’Brien who upped Belton’s playing time when Belton improved his GPA heading in to camp.
And Belton began to flourish in O’Brien’s pro system.
Although Zwinak got the bulk of carries — 210 to Belton’s 157 last season — Belton was O’Brien’s go-to option if he needed a receiving threat out of the backfield. And Belton was the team’s preferred pass protector, guarding quarterback’s Christian Hackenberg at a rate of nearly 3 to 1 compared to Zwinak.
Blocking is one of the most overlooked traits of the elite running backs, Belton said. For him, it helped him earn more playing time. But earning more carries by throwing good blocks isn’t Belton’s endgoal.
“It’s not a matter of pride. It’s a matter of protecting your quarterback,” Belton said. “If the quarterback goes down then you’re in trouble. You have to protect the guy that’s slinging the ball for you and making the offense go.”
That’s something Belton knows a little bit about. He played quarterback at Winslow Township High where he was the first New Jersey player to post consecutive seasons of 2,000 yards passing and 1,000 yards rushing. His quarterbacking experience helped him pick up O’Brien’s offense just like it is helping him learn new offensive coordinator John Donovan’s schemes.
But Belton wasn’t completely unfamiliar with Donovan and head coach James Franklin who was hired after O’Brien left in January. Donovan, himself from New Jersey, was one of the first recruiters that visited Belton during his high school days. Franklin soon followed. Both coaches, then at Maryland, tried to coax Belton into playing for the Terrapins.
While their personalities aren’t nearly as similar as Belton’s and O’Brien’s, Franklin — an energetic and outgoing coach always quick with a fiery or quirky comment — said he’s excited to work with Belton this season and called their relationship “unique” due to their past interactions.
Belton and Franklin sat at different tables about 20 feet apart inside the Hilton Chicago on Tuesday. When asked about Belton, Franklin stood up, looked over and goaded the running back, interrupting Belton’s own response to an unrelated question.
In front of about 25 reporters and television cameras, Franklin was trying desperately to get a rise out of him.
“I’m on him constantly to smile,” Franklin said. “We’re at this media day today and I want him to have a good time. So I’m trying to kind of poke at him and make fun of him and get him to smile more. But I know he’s hungry and he’s excited for the opportunity he has this year like most of our seniors are.”
Belton looked down at the table, cracked a smile and allowed himself to laugh.
Then his eyebrows narrowed again.
“As an offense, we’re excited for the things we’re about to do this year.”