Penn State offensive coordinator John Donovan called seniors Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton options “1 and 1A” at running back.
They carried the load last season, combining to rush for 1,792 yards and 17 touchdowns, and they’re going to power the running game again this year.
“It’s hard to play running back the entire game,” Donovan said on a teleconference Monday. “So you’re going to need guys to spell each other and we’ll see how ultimately it works out. But they complement each other well — the two older guys — they’ve both played a lot of ball and they’re both going to play a lot.”
With redshirt sophomore Akeel Lynch and sophomore Cole Chiappialle, Donovan said Penn State has four running backs it trusts to play in any situation. Lynch was third on the team with 60 carries and 358 yards rushing last season. Chiappialle emerged with a strong spring that included a 63-yard, two-touchdown performance in the Blue-White game.
Penn State opens the season Saturday at 8:30 a.m. against Central Florida in Dublin, Ireland.
The Nittany Lions will depend on Zwinak and Belton, who combined for 367 carries in 2013, but there are also high expectations for Lynch.
“Akeel has kind of been like the leech that’s kind of been hanging on to every move that those guys have made and it’s also made him better,” running backs coach Charles Huff said. “I think last year, him getting in a couple different spots there really helped his maturity.
“The biggest thing that we talked about with him was you got to come into this year and you got to prepare as if you’re a starter. And I’m not sure he had ever done that in the past, so now we feel comfortable as a staff with either of those three guys being the guy.”
Zwinak led the team with 989 yards and 12 touchdowns on 210 carries in 2013. Belton, who paced Penn State with 5.1 yards per carry, ran for 803 yards and five scores.
Donovan said the shifty Belton has proven to be a strong pass protector, too.
With three running backs capable of leading the way, the Nittany Lions coaching staff can tailor the offense to highlight their strengths.
“Right now we’re able to put those guys in position to be successful by play,” Huff said. “There’s certain plays that Zwinak’s good at it, there’s certain plays that Belton’s good at, there’s certain plays that Akeel is good at, so now we have options.”
Wartman, Bell solidify linebacking corps
At the end of the spring, Penn State defensive coordinator Bob Shoop graded the performance of outside linebackers Nyeem Wartman and Brandon Bell as incomplete.
Both have impressed Shoop during training camp.
“I thought they both have had outstanding camps,” Shoop said. “Brandon played very, very well, had two really good scrimmages, stepped up when the lights went on. And Nyeem’s been really as consistent as any player we’ve had on the defense, so I think they’ve solidified us.”
They’ll line up with middle linebacker Mike Hull to lead the Penn State defense. Shoop said Gary Wooten has played well as Hull’s backup and added Von Walker, Jason Cabinda and Troy Reeder could all see playing time.
Wartman, a redshirt sophomore, made eight starts for the Nittany Lions last season, finishing 10th on the team with 32 tackles.
“He’s taken his game to the next level,” Shoop said. “And you can see why he was a highly recruited player.”
Wilkerson, Gesicki to contribute at tight end
Donovan wants his tight ends to be able to line up anywhere on the field to keep defenses guessing.
“Tight ends, if they can learn it all, can play inside or outside or in the back or wherever it might be,” Donovan said. “So we did a good job I think of coming in here kind of cross training those guys into multiple spots on the field, so they can all do pretty much whatever we ask them to do.”
With sophomore tight end Adam Breneman sidelined with an undisclosed injury, redshirt sophomore Brent Wilkerson and freshman Mike Gesicki will be expected to contribute behind veterans Jesse James and Kyle Carter.
Donovan said Wilkerson has improved since the spring and has displayed the versatility needed at the position. Donovan also praised Gesicki for how he’s made the transition to the college game mentally.