A quick glance at last season’s statistics makes it pretty obvious who will be the expected No. 1 running back this fall for the Penn State football team.
Akeel Lynch led in carries, yards and yards per game. The next top returner is quarterback Christian Hackenberg.
The other five who had carries last season and return this year? They are all receivers, plus a defensive back.
In fact, no other running back on this year’s roster had a carry last season — and even defensive tackle Brad Bars, now with the New York Giants, had one rush for 32 yards.
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Ball-carrying experience is at a premium in Beaver Stadium this fall.
The coaches want competition, and won’t publicly commit to a No. 1 back just yet, but that’s to be expected.
“I think you want to sort out the depth (chart) as quick as you possibly can,” head coach James Franklin said at media day last week. “I don’t think that’s going to happen. I think it’s going to take some time. I’d love for him (Lynch) from day one until the end of the season to make it clearly obvious that we’ve got one big time running back that we’re going to be able to hang our hat on while we’re developing those other guys.”
But Lynch, who had 147 carries for 703 yards and an average of 52.2 yards per game in 2014, is happy the job is his to lose. He admits he is approaching the season different from previous years.
“When I run the ball, it’s not the fact that I’m running to stay in the game, I’m running to make plays in order to win the game,” Lynch said. “My mindset changed from not making mistakes to making plays, become the older guy, the guy I have to be.”
That part of the depth chart may be pretty obvious. The names to fill in the lines below Lynch are still up for debate.
The leading candidates appear to be Nick Scott and Mark Allen, at least based on their performances in the Blue-White Game in April, but nothing is assured.
“Every time you get on the field — practice, spring ball, things like that — you’ve got to prove yourself again,” Scott said. “We’ve got a lot of talent that came in, we have a lot of talent that’s currently on the team, so my goal is just to come in, prove myself and compete with the guys and show I can be the best I can be.”
“Every day is important,” Allen said. “Take one day off, you might get put down the depth chart at No. 5.”
Scott had the biggest highlight of the Blue-White Game. He led everyone with nine carries for 85 yards, but it was his 51-yard touchdown run, during which he spun out of the grasp of Anthony Zettel in the backfield before racing downfield, that drew rave reviews.
Scott and Zettel just happen to be neighbors in the locker room.
“He doesn’t miss an opportunity to let me know that my knee was down,” Scott said. “We jaw back and forth. It’s all in good fun, but it’s something we talk about a lot.”
Scott and Allen are both on the smaller side as redshirt freshmen. While Lynch is 5-foot-11 and 222 pounds, Scott is 5-11 and 200 pounds, and Allen is 5-6 and 181.
The other backfield candidates include freshman Andre Robinson (5-9, 209) and Saquon Barkley (5-11, 215), redshirt freshman Johnathan Thomas (5-11, 221) and senior walk-on Brandon Johnson (6-2, 228).
“The good part is we have some youth in the room,” running backs coach Charles Huff said. “We try not to create a cookie-cutter situation where we only recruit certain types of guys. Each one of those guys add something a little bit different, which gives him his own advantage.”
Huff ticked off the top qualities of the backs with little on their Penn State resumes: Allen is small and shifty, Scott has a little more size and power, Barkley is athletic, Robinson is a steady worker and Thomas is a tough, gritty runner.
Whomever may be carrying the ball, they all know they have to do better than last season.
Penn State averaged just 2.9 yards per carry and the 101.9 rushing yards per game average ranked 117 th out of 125 FBS Division I programs.
“In order to be a great team, to be in contention for a national championship, we’ve got to be doing it consistently,” Lynch said. “You can’t have a 100-yard back in one game, then go absent for four games. I think that’s what’s key for us — consistency.”
How many times does Lynch want the ball per game?
“Enough to win,” he said.