PSU position preview: Running backs

August, 22, 2013
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As part of an ongoing series, NittanyNation will preview a different position leading up to the season opener against Syracuse on Aug. 31. Up today: Running backs.

Projected starter: Zach Zwinak (2012 stats: 1,000 rushing yards, six touchdowns, 4.9 yard average; 20 catches, 177 yards, one TD)

Key losses: Michael Zordich (301 yards, 3.8 yard average, four touchdowns; 15 catches, 162 yards)

Next in line: Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch will split carries, although there's really no clear No. 2 right now. Belton was listed as the backup on the post-spring practice depth chart, but there's no telling who'll finish with more carries by the end of the season.

Pat Zerbe is the starting fullback right now, but he's not expected to see all that much time as a ball-carrier. Redshirt sophomore Deron Thompson, who isn't on scholarship, impressed in the Blue-White Game and will likely step up if there are any injuries.

What to expect: This group isn't as deep as last season, but it should still definitely be improved. Big things are expected out of Lynch, the redshirt freshman, and he could be the big-play threat PSU needs out the backfield.

There's definitely a nice balance here. Zwinak is the straightforward, wear-the-defense-down runner. Lynch is the young speedster who can run in the 4.4s. And Belton is more balanced and should be a threat in the passing game since he played wideout as a freshman.

It took the Nittany Lions a few games last season to find an identity at tailback. Zwinak is the workhorse, while the other two can offer him a breather and the offense a bit of a different look. All three will be utilized this year, and all three will return again in 2014. This group is only going to get better, and this season should set a strong tone.

Recruiting trail: If depth is a problem now, it certainly won't be that way in 2014. PSU already garnered two RB commits here in three-star tailback Nick Scott (Fairfax, Va./Fairfax) and three-star prospect Mark Allen (Hyattsville, Md./DeMatha).

Allen is coming off a torn ACL and likely won't make an early impact at Penn State. Perhaps, as a result, the Nittany Lions might not be done at tailback this recruiting season. Another tailback -- Qadree Ollison out of Buffalo (N.Y.) Canisius -- is a prospect with a unique blend of size and speed. The 6-foot-1, 228-pound back who runs a reported 4.5 is from the same high school league as Lynch, and some coaches there think Ollison might even be better.

PSU entered the race late for Ollison, but the Lions remain near the top of his list. Ollison should decide in early September, and Wisconsin is likely the biggest competition right now.

Best-case scenario: Zwinak carries this offense while the rookie quarterback gets adjusted and averages around six yards a carry. He earns at least an honorable mention on the All-Big Ten team, while Lynch breaks some big, key runs and Belton contributes in a lot of different areas.

Worst-case scenario: Zwinak starts off the season a bit slow after a spring wrist injury that forced him to wear a red shirt the first few weeks of the preseason. He does fine after the first few games, but that throws off the offense. The other two backs fare OK but don't break out like some fans hoped.

Top position question: How many carries can Lynch and Belton expect to see? It's the answer everyone wants to know, but there's no easy way to know. Head coach Bill O'Brien could go a lot of different ways, but we can look back to last season and try to project it that way.

In the last seven games, once Zwinak became the clear No. 1, the tailback took about 62 percent of the running backs' carries. If the offense remains balanced and everything remains equal, that means there would be about 13-15 carries a game for those two to split.

There's lot of variables at this point. But, right now, that's our best guess. And if someone's on a roll -- like Zwinak against Wisconsin -- all bets are off.

Josh Moyer | email

Penn State/Big Ten reporter

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