- Josh Moyer, ESPN Staff Writer
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Bill Belton spoke softly beneath a light-blue ballcap -- the lone player in a group of six to wear a hat -- and avoided eye contact with reporters who peppered him Tuesday with questions about last season.
He was supposed to be the workhorse last year. Bill O'Brien said, weeks before the opener, he was supposed to carry the ball 20-25 times a game. He was supposed to be one of the brightest stars of the Supa Six.
Fans know the story, but Belton knows it better: He went from the big man who was supposed to pace this offense and instead battled a high ankle sprain and became arguably the biggest disappointment of 2012. Matt McGloin soared, last-chance option Zach Zwinak shined and, there on the bench, sat Belton.
During one play later in the season, with a tractor-trailer-sized hole and nothing but green in front of him, Belton never shifted gears and turned a seemingly long gain into a short one. Only one of his 60 carries gained more than 19 yards.
"It was just that I had a feel for playing running back when I was younger and I thought I had a good idea of how playing running back was," Belton said. "But, honestly, listening to Coach O'Brien and Coach [Charles] London, they taught me some new things at running back."
Belton shied away from using harsher words such as "disappointment" while describing the season before. He labeled it a learning experience and spent this offseason on speed and strength drills. Just as on the field, the New Jersey native knows he can't look behind him or he'll stumble.
He's trained every day, not to make sure last season doesn't happen again, but to make sure he's better. He's optimistic. And his teammates are, too.
"He's making good cuts, he's making smart cuts, and he's not dancing in the hole," offensive guard John Urschel said. "He's really hitting it hard, making a good run downhill, one cut, two cuts, and getting positive yards. And, as offensive linemen, we love that."
O'Brien, who wasn't within earshot, stood on the practice field about an hour later and touched on almost the exact points as Urschel: "He's worked hard, he's quicker, he's running the ball more decisively than he was last year -- and he can catch the ball out of the backfield."
Belton is no longer the featured back. He knows that. O'Brien admitted he had his share of "heart-to-hearts" with Belton, but the 5-foot-10 tailback isn't attempting to usurp Zwinak. He's trying to listen to the staff and just help out wherever he can.
"Whatever the week calls for," he said. "If it calls for me to be in the backfield, if it calls for me to be out wide, if it calls for me to even do some other stuff -- that's up to [O'Brien]. Hopefully, I can get a chance to show all the things I can do."
What about returning kickoffs? asked one reporter.
"Yeah," Belton replied. "I like to return kicks. I think I can help there and change some games."
And what about punts?
"Hopefully," he added.
Belton isn't the feel-good story of the offseason. And he's not a likely breakout candidate. He probably won't rush for 1,000 yards or score seven touchdowns, feats both accomplished by Zwinak last season. But Belton does have a chance to affect these games.
He will get carries and try to contribute. That's all Belton really wants.
The staff has helped him lower his 40-yard-dash time to 4.53 seconds and, although he's not faster than redshirt freshman Akeel Lynch, he's willing to do anything. He talks softly and provides a shallow PSU roster with versatility. In a lot of ways, his personality seems to harken back to former old-school PSU runner Tony Hunt.
"Honestly," Belton added. "I just want to be a factor with the team."
He might not be the best or, really, be in the position to be the best. But he doesn't have a big ego, and he decided to stick it out and put the team first. He might not lead in any major statistical categories in 2013, but the Lions could surely use more players like him.
12dMitch Sherman and Brian Bennett