Penn State Football

Penn State football: Lynch working hard to stay atop running back depth chart

Penn State running back Akeel Lynch and the Nittany Lions are winding down spring drills as the annual Blue-White Game is 4 p.m. Saturday at Beaver Stadium.
Penn State running back Akeel Lynch and the Nittany Lions are winding down spring drills as the annual Blue-White Game is 4 p.m. Saturday at Beaver Stadium. CDT file photo

Akeel Lynch knows the responsibility that comes with being Penn State’s top running back.

He said he needs to do everything — run, catch and block effectively — to live up to that responsibility. He also knows his spot atop the depth chart isn’t guaranteed.

“I’ve got to continue every day to prove that I am the No. 1 running back,” Lynch said Tuesday. “I can be the No. 1 running back.”

Lynch started last season third on the depth chart behind seniors Bill Belton and Zach Zwinak, but he finished the year as the Nittany Lions’ leading rusher with 678 yards on 147 carries. The redshirt junior is working to improve every facet of his game while helping the younger backs behind him heading into 2015.

The Nittany Lions will close out the spring with the Blue-White Game at Beaver Stadium at 4 p.m. Saturday.

Lynch has received favorable reviews this spring.

Penn State coach James Franklin said earlier this spring that Lynch looked like “the workhorse that we think he can be.” His teammates have seen him mature as he prepares for the starting job.

“You can sort of see him coming into his own,” quarterback Christian Hackenberg said, “and he’s a guy who I have a ton of respect for.”

Lynch patiently waited and learned behind Belton and Zwinak last season before emerging as the top rushing option midway through the season.

Lynch said one of his lowest points came as a redshirt freshman in 2013. He sprained his knee during an 11-carry, 35-yard performance in a 63-14 loss to Ohio State.

“I had an opportunity, but an injury slowed me down,” Lynch said. “So from that point, I always made sure that I continue to take care of my body in a professional manner, where I continue to do stuff beyond the football field or beyond the hours we do and I continued to do that.”

His teammates have noticed that dedication.

“He works extremely, extremely hard,” Hackenberg said. “He’s always in there getting his body right. … I think that that’s helped him a lot just being able to take the beating that he has and I think this spring he just elevated his play and his performance and his understanding of everything.”

Linebacker Brandon Bell said Lynch has maintained the same routine.

“I pretty much see him every single day just consistently doing the same thing to be a great running back,” Bell said. “I think he will be.”

To achieve that, Lynch is focused on becoming a complete back.

He and the rest of the running backs have worked to improve as receivers. And he said he’s gotten more comfortable in pass-protection situations.

“I’ve seen a lot of improvement with myself just being more confident and also seeing the blitzes a lot faster,” Lynch said.

Lynch is also now transitioning into the mentor role that Belton and Zwinak played for him.

He’s aiming to help teach redshirt freshmen Mark Allen, Nick Scott and Johnathan Thomas. Lynch said confidence is crucial for the young backs to have success as they continue to adjust to the college game.

It’s a lesson he learned from the veteran backs while he waited to take over the top spot on the depth chart.

“The best thing they ever taught me was just to believe in yourself, have confidence in what you do,” Lynch said. “I know it takes time, but when you go out there, just do what you do because that’s why you’re here, that’s why you got a scholarship, that’s why you’re at Penn State.”

Wartman making transition

Nyeem Wartman said he primarily played at middle linebacker this spring before being limited recently.

Franklin has said one player won’t be able to replace leading tackler Mike Hull in the middle. But Wartman appears to be a possible replacement for Hull as the starter in the middle after ranking second on the team with 75 tackles in 2014.

Wartman learned he’d be moving to the middle a month before spring practice started, though he also spent time on the outside this spring.

“Right now we’re just figuring out who can fit where,” Wartman said. “We’re just going to try to put the best three guys on the field, whether it’s whoever excluding me or whoever including me.”

Wartman said he isn’t sure if he’ll play in the Blue-White Game on Saturday.

Wartman said he likes being in control of the defense at middle linebacker, but some of the defensive linemen still prefer how Hull made calls.

“The biggest adjustment is my wording on calling the plays,” Wartman said, “and just making sure they’re lined up and saying it in a way that they don’t have to think about it.”

Blue-White parking

Penn State finalized parking and traffic information for the Blue-White Game.

Admission and parking are free. Beaver Stadium parking lots will open at 8 a.m. Saturday. The overnight RV lot off Park Avenue opens at 8 a.m. Friday and is $60.

There will be a player autograph session, limited to one item per person, from 1:15 to 2 p.m., with gates A and B opening at 1 p.m. Other gates will open at 2:30.

Fans are encouraged to pre-print a parking pass from GoPSUsports.com’s Blue-White Game Central.

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