The way Akeel Lynch looks at it, he’s been in an ideal situation for a while now.
He hasn’t been expected to be the main running back or carry the offense for Penn State. He hasn’t collected dust on the team’s bench, either. He’s had plenty of time and space to grow physically and ready himself mentally. He’s had two upperclassmen in Bill Belton and Zach Zwinak to observe and learn from and prepare for a bigger workload that he knew would eventually come.
The time is here and an opportunity to get more involved in the Nittany Lions’ offense is upon the sophomore running back from Toronto. When Zwinak went down with a season-ending injury, 27 percent of the team’s carries and 33 percent of Penn State’s rushing yards from its three-back stable went with him.
Now Lynch — who’s been used as a change-of-pace back and as a sub when Belton’s needed a breather — figures to get more playing time with Zwinak out.
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So far, Lynch has gotten half as many carries (36) as Belton’s 72.
“We’ll have those two guys carry the load and we’ll have a third guy prepared,” Penn State coach James Franklin said.
Lynch has been preparing for quite a while.
The player who will slip on No. 22 on Saturday is a much different one than the one who first stepped on campus in 2012 and took a redshirt year. Lynch, who moved away from his mother’s Canadian home to play high school football in the United States and hopefully be recruited, insists he has a better understanding for what is expected of him and how to prepare each week.
“I think with more years in a system, more years in college, you become more confident,” Lynch said. “And I think one thing, a lot more patient. I’ve learned how to take the two yards instead of trying to make every play a big play. With young guys up front, you just got to take what they give you and I think that’s for any running back. Not every play is going to be a big play. Sometimes you have to take the two yards, sometimes you’ve got to get the tough one yard to get the first down.”
So far Penn State’s rushing offense hasn’t had much success. No Penn State back has eclipsed the 100-yard mark yet this season and the Nittany Lions rank 123rd out of 128 FBS teams in rushing offense.
But Lynch has showed glimpses that he’s a back that can get going downhill and hit holes decisively. He’s got five plays of 10 or more yards and is averaging just over five yards per carry. Belton and Zwinak have averaged 3.7 and 2.8 yards per carry, respectively.
“I think Akeel just brings a different piece to the puzzle, really,” receiver DaeSean Hamilton said. “Bill, Zach and all of those guys have been great backs for us but unfortunately Zach got hurt. But Akeel’s back there and he’s a power guy and at the same time he’s a speed guy. With Bill back there, they’ll both be in a tandem now. Bill’s an elusive guy, he can stretch defenses, he can get upfield quick. When Akeel’s back there he just brings another dimension to our running game.”
But Lynch has been trying to add another dimension to his own game.
He was limited last season and never had much of an impact on the offense. A knee injury forced Lynch to miss games against Illinois, Minnesota and Wisconsin and he didn’t touch the ball in wins over Syracuse and Michigan. His struggles in pass protection kept him from getting more reps, Lynch said.
He’s been working on that and his teammates — Belton specifically — have seen Lynch make progress with his blitz pickups. But Lynch was caught flat footed on the final play against Ohio State when Buckeye defensive end Joey Bosa burst through the offensive line untouched and ran Lynch backward into Christian Hackenberg for the game-clinching sack.
Although a miscommunication between offensive linemen allowed Bosa to come free, Lynch still faulted himself for not going low to put the Buckeye big man down.
“I’m not in position to pick up D-ends full speed rushing so next time in that situation I’ll definitely cut him,” Lynch said.
He’ll find himself in similar situations now more than ever. He will even have more chances to catch passes out of the backfield, something Lynch says he’s always done well. He’s caught just two passes since he’s been at Penn State.
Since he’s been here, Franklin’s seen Lynch make plenty of progress.
“I think he’s more decisive. He’s downhill. He’s physical,” Franklin said. “I think the area he still needs to improve like a lot of backs is in pass protection. But I’ve been impressed with him. ... He’s kind of a one-cut runner. He hits it. Now you’ve got to deal with the fact that he’s 225, 230 pounds doing it. I think he’s getting more confident every single week.”