- Josh Moyer, ESPN Staff Writer
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Bill Belton still remembers what everyone said about him last season -- about how he was nothing more than a bust, an offensive disappointment, a tailback who just didn't have what it takes.
He's no longer the same player now. He leads Penn State in rushing (796 yards) and cuts upfield with purpose, as if he's running from a swarm of bumblebees. But he still finds it difficult to forget last season's disappointment. As a matter of fact, he makes sure he doesn't forget.
He's saved all those negative articles -- the ones that alluded to him as a below-average player -- on his cell phone. So whenever he finds himself growing complacent or feels like sleeping in an extra 15 minutes, he reaches into his pocket and clicks one of those saved stories.
"I don't know who wrote them, but they're everywhere if you go out there and look," Belton said. "I read them from time to time, and that's what's motivating me to finish this season."
It's difficult to blame reporters or fans for prematurely writing off Belton, whom Big Ten readers recently named the most surprising tailback of the conference season. Bill O'Brien gathered around a circle of reporters in August 2012 and confidently stated how the former receiver was capable of carrying the pigskin 20-25 times a game. Belton firmly believed that number; everyone did.
But the New Jersey kid would average only five carries a contest that season. He would wait patiently on the sideline some afternoons, hoping to hear his name called. And in some games, such as Indiana, the staff never once called upon his number. He'd walk back to his on-campus apartment afterward, wondering what he'd have to do to live up to expectations.
"The toughest thing to do was to come back after a game and hear them talk about the game, knowing you didn't help the team do anything," Belton said, referring to his three starting roommates. "It was something they didn't see at all. I was happy for them; it was something moreso my parents saw. "
O'Brien and assistant coach Charles London pulled him aside every now and then to remind him they still believed in him, that one day he could be one of the best backs they ever coached. But that time did not come last season, when Belton stuttered in the backfield. And the media wondered aloud what had happened to the same player whom O'Brien heaped praise upon before his first start.
It wouldn't come until the offseason, when Belton drove three-and-a-half hours home to Sicklerville, N.J., reclined in his living room, and watched one taped Big Ten game after another.
"I watched all these games and I was like, 'What do I have to do to be at the top in the Big Ten, to be the top in the country?' " Belton asked. "I was like, OK, all the other stuff doesn't matter. If I want to be the best I can be, I need to focus on football and school."
The recipe for success, Belton figured, wasn't so much a recipe as it was just a single ingredient: Hard work. Success wasn't going to tackle him in the home opener; he'd have to work on finding it in empty weight rooms and summer football fields over the offseason.
So, from that point on, he looked at 2013 as a new chapter -- even if the media didn't catch on right away. He spent three or four afternoons every week on the practice field sprinting through cones, pushing sleds and then heading in the weight room.
Sometimes, he was alone. Other times, he trained there with five others. Whenever he found himself in the weight room, his arms aching and his face straining for one last rep, strength coach Craig Fitzgerald would be there to yell in his ear: "Do you want to be the best running back -- or do you want to go back to sleep?" Fitzgerald never needed to wait on an answer.
And when Belton jogged to the football field himself, alone with his thoughts and without Fitzgerald's motivation, his mind raced from one old news article to another -- about how he wasn't ready, how he was no good, how he was too slow.
"That bothered me," Belton admitted. "When I came back, it was more so I wanted to prove these people wrong. I want to make them eat every word they said about me. That's where my motivation came from."
He sat in on the film room with O'Brien and London, putting in extra time with those two whenever compliance allowed. They'd freeze a frame, a single picture of an opposing defensive line, and Belton would call aloud where the right cut would be. Then they'd go faster. And faster.
Different looks, different blocking schemes. It didn't matter. Little by little, he had gone from running on pure instinct to making quick decisions based on coaching.
"He's making good cuts, he's making smart cuts, and he's not dancing in the hole," offensive guard John Urschel said. “And, as offensive linemen, we love that.”
His accomplishments this season are slowly starting to outnumber last year's negative stories. So far he's crossed the 200-yard mark against Illinois -- the first time a Nittany Lion has done that since 2002. He ran in for the game-ending touchdown against Michigan in the longest game in conference history (4 OT), and he rushed for the most yards (98) that Ohio State has allowed all season.
But he shifted his weight uncomfortably in his chair when asked about his high point this season. He paused for a few moments and glanced up as if maybe the ceiling had an answer waiting for him.
"I'm not where I want to be. I want to be on a level, let's say for instance, where Montee Ball was," Belton said. "That's where I want to be. That was one of the best running backs that I've seen since I've been here. He received a lot of attention for the stuff he did on the field, and I want to reach that point where, if you say my name, you know who I am.
"But I'm not at that point. I still got a lot more work to do."
2dJosh Moyer and Tom VanHaaren