Bill Belton took a handoff, shifted the football into his right arm and accelerated around the right side of Penn State’s scout team defense.
It was a routine play at the team’s practice on Wednesday — a simple run to the right where all the little details usually go unnoticed. But upon closer examination, Belton’s approach was much more nuanced than it ever was before this season.
Taking a closer look, Belton clutched the pigskin tightly against his body, cradling it vertically with one end firmly tucked in the crook of his arm, the other gripped strongly by the running back’s gloved left hand. Before this season, Belton, Akeel Lynch and Zach Zwinak before he was hurt, had never carried the football this way — high and tight — before. Belton admitted before practice that it’s not a natural way to carry the ball.
“It took a while,” Belton said. “You have to get the muscle memory and you have to make it second nature for my body to do that. But it’s just something that we worked on in the spring and progressively got better at throughout the year.”
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It’s been effective.
A year removed from a fumble-filled season where both Zwinak and Belton struggled to hold onto the ball in traffic, Penn State’s running backs have not fumbled the football this season. And with a game against a takeaway-happy Temple defense looming, Penn State coaches and players believe their much better off for tweaking their ball-carrying technique.
They know this game will be the ultimate test. The Owls are adept at ripping the football away and pouncing on fumbles.
“They’re doing unbelievable job creating turnovers,” Penn State coach James Franklin said of the Owls’ 25 takeaways. “I’ve never heard of 17 recovered fumbles. I’ve never heard of that before.”
Until Charles Huff took over as running backs coach, Belton and his teammates hadn’t been taught any different ways to carry the ball aside from the traditional style of securing it parallel to their forearms. As soon as Huff watched the film from last season and saw Penn State’s top three backs combine for seven fumbles, Huff realized he had to make a change.
It got so bad that Belton and Zwinak were fumbling once every 20 carries during their respective three and five-game spans between their first and last fumbles. All of Belton and Zwinak’s fumbles came when defenders poked the ball out from behind or ripped it away as either back tried to squirm out of tackles. By carrying the ball low, both Zwinak and Belton had a tendency to flail with the ball away from their bodies where it became an easy target for defenders taught to go for the ball more and more.
Zwinak, who had never worn gloves, began wearing them after he lost a fumble against Ohio State. He didn’t fumble again. But gloves didn’t keep Belton from losing a fumble in each of the next three games.
As it turns out, gloves weren’t the solution. An overhaul of their technique was.
By keeping the ball vertical, it makes the ball a smaller target. It also forces the player to run with his forearm vertical too, effectively eliminating space from above and underneath the ball where defenders poke and rip at. And by carrying the ball high and tight, it becomes nearly impossible for a running back to swing the ball away from his torso where it is vulnerable in traffic — imagine flexing your bicep, fist out to one side while also gripping a football at one of its points and running at the same time, a movement extremely uncomfortable and unnatural.
“When you have changes like that it definitely takes some time to get used to,” Belton said. “I wasn’t reluctant to change how I was holding the ball but when he came in and told us we were going to be doing things differently I was able to jump on board and do what the coaches asked of me to be able to be successful.”
But Penn State’s backs aren’t satisfied that they’ve been able to just protect the ball well enough. They want to move it, too.
Penn State’s struggles to run the ball have been well documented this season. The Nittany Lions are averaging just 2.5 yards per carry. While the offensive line has been a work in progress this season, Belton’s said he’s seen improvement up front. Holes have opened up and cutback lanes have been there. Now it’s a matter of he and Lynch finding and hitting them.
They’ll try to do that against Temple while the Owls will try to plug the holes and rip the ball away as they’ve done all year.
“As a running back in this system, you’ve got to be able to find the little seams and get through them,” Belton said. “I’m very critical of myself and earlier in the year I don’t think I was doing that too well. But Akeel does a great job of finding the little seams and getting north and south quickly and I think we’re both continuing to grow into the offense. I know it’s late in season but we’re still continuing to get it right.”