Whenever Penn State’s Akeel Lynch is not directly involved in a play at practice, he stands behind the featured running back.
Whether it’s Bill Belton or Zach Zwinak, Lynch follows the action closely and visualizes himself in that spot.
He may see a blitz or watch a hole open. And he imagines how he’d react on each play.
“I think by taking those reps that you may not get in practice, but you may end up getting in the game can help you succeed in the long run,” Lynch said.
Lynch finds himself behind Belton and Zwinak as the third option in the Penn State backfield. He’s taken advantage of his limited opportunities, averaging 7.7 yards on his 17 carries. The redshirt sophomore paced the Nittany Lions with 81 yards and a touchdown on eight carries in the team’s best rushing performance of the season against Massachusetts last Saturday.
Penn State coach James Franklin said he feels good about playing all three running backs going into the Nittany Lions’ Big Ten matchup against Northwestern (1-2, 0-0 Big Ten) this Saturday at noon at Beaver Stadium.
“I think they’ve all shown that they have the ability to make plays and have a role in this offense,” Franklin said after his team’s 48-7 win Saturday. “And Akeel’s one of those guys. I don’t know if there’s one guy right now that’s jumped out.
“Statistically, it may say something else. But I think we’re going to have to use all three of those guys all year long and that’s our plan right now.”
Statistically, Lynch leads the team in yards per carry at 7.7. He broke the longest rush by the Nittany Lions this season, going 46 yards on his first carry against the Minutemen. Lynch has lost yards on just two carries.
Belton has rushed for 164 yards and three touchdowns on 41 carries (4.0 average), and Zwinak has accounted for 97 yards and three touchdowns on 33 carries (2.9 average).
Lynch said after the win over UMass that he has to wait his turn as part of a talented group at running back.
But he’s also repeatedly said he’s ready to go whenever his name is called.
“I think my mindset is just conduct myself as a starter no matter the situation I’m placed in,” Lynch said. “That’s kind of the mindset I’ve been taught since coming into college because no matter what, there’s always someone trying to take your job and you’re always trying to take someone else’s job.”
That competition plays out each week at practice.
Zwinak said the running backs are constantly talking about plays and bouncing ideas off each other. They’ve stayed sharp as a result of knowing there are two other capable options in the backfield.
Though Lynch’s opportunities have been limited, Zwinak praised his teammate’s practice habits.
“He works extremely hard and paying attention to what’s going on,” Zwinak said. “He’s right in the mix with us. He’s a great running back, very focused on details and he comes out and works really hard.”
The details explain more than the statistics, Zwinak said.
“Whether it be me, Bill or Akeel, whoever’s in the game, one thing we’ve all learned, there’s a lot more to playing running back than just carries and stats,” Zwinak said. “There’s a whole world of things that are involved with it.”
Success starts with execution on each play.
And Franklin said Lynch is still a young player, learning and gaining experience.
Lynch has aimed to improve since redshirting his freshman season gave him a chance to fine-tune aspects he overlooked in high school like pass blocking and conditioning.
Now Lynch focuses on the details. Taking notes. Asking questions. Getting “mental reps” at practice.
That approach carries over to the games as he waits to take the field for his first series.
“I’m always asking what the play is, what the keys are,” Lynch said, “so once I get in, I know what’s going on.”
Lynch was ready to go on his first carry against Massachusetts.
On first down of Penn State’s third drive of the game, Lynch took a toss to the right and burst through a hole.
As Lynch made his way down the sideline, UMass linebacker Jovan Santos-Knox dove and tripped up the Nittany Lions running back, allowing Minutemen defensive back Trey Dudley-Giles to catch up and bring Lynch to the ground.
The 46-yard run was the start of a big day for Lynch and the Penn State ground game. Lynch finished with 81 of the Nittany Lions’ 228 rushing yards.
But Lynch isn’t concerned with his role in the running back rotation.
All he can do is wait his turn every week.
“I just always believed that when your time comes, your time will come,” Lynch said. “So I just don’t really try to worry about the things I can’t control. I just worry about what I can control, which is my attitude and my effort, so when my name is called I got to be ready for it.”