Looking to the past & future: RBs

December, 19, 2013
12/19/13
1:00
PM ET
It's never too late -- or too early -- to see what we learned from this past season and also look ahead to next season. So, over the next two weeks, we'll break down each position on the Nittany Lions.

Up today: Running backs.

REWIND

Expectations entering the 2013 season: Zach Zwinak became a household name in Pennsylvania after running for 1,000 yards in 2012, and he was expected to be the bellcow again in 2013. Zwinak was the fifth-string tailback in 2012 but gradually proved himself and was a near-lock to reach the 1,000-yard plateau once again.

Bill Belton was expected to contribute more than last season, as he was listed as the backup in the preseason. But a lot of people believed the younger tailback with the seemingly higher upside -- Akeel Lynch -- would overtake him on the depth chart. Some went so far as to say that Belton's No. 2 spot on the depth chart was just a formality.

How they fared: In the beginning, Zwinak fell well short of expectations. In his first eight games, he crossed the 100-yard mark just once. And he was finally pulled at the season's midpoint because of his fumbling issues. (He was giving up the ball at more than twice the rate of the average college running back.)

Belton took over with strong games against Michigan, Ohio State and Illinois. Big Ten readers even voted him the most surprising tailback in the conference. But he then fumbled in three straight games, fell ill and watched as Zwinak took back his starting job. Zwinak finished the last four games with 150, 149, 149 and 115 rushing yards. Lynch was merely an afterthought.

What we learned: Fumbling is clearly the biggest issue for this group. Zwinak finished strong and showed he's still a good running back, but he'll have to prove he can consistently hold on to the ball. Ditto for Belton. We also learned Lynch needs to understand the playbook more and become more well-rounded before Bill O'Brien plugs him in -- but he's clearly a good runner.

Grading the position: B. On one hand, the Lions finished strong and even saw Belton rumble for 201 yards against Illinois. But they started off slowly and fumbled six times. If they didn't play such an important role in key wins over Michigan, Illinois and Wisconsin, this grade would've been lower. But they played well when PSU needed them the most.

FAST FORWARD

Key losses: None. The three top backs -- Zwinak, Belton, Lynch -- all return next season.

Position stock watch: Trending upward. How could this group not have a bright outlook? Belton showed huge strides since last season when it came to his style (fewer cuts now) and his vision. If he has that same type of improvement this offseason, he could push Zwinak for a bigger chunk of the carries.

Zwinak seems to have solidified his role as the top RB, but that obviously has the potential to change under a head coach who prefers to go with the hot hand. With the pair graduating after next season, though, expect to see more Lynch as O'Brien needs to prepare him. Next season should certainly be an interesting one for this group.

Key to next season: Limiting the fumbles. Pick a game this season, any game. There's a 50 percent chance that either Belton or Zwinak fumbled in it. If either tailback gets a case of the fumbles next season, Lynch has the potential to replace him as the No. 2 guy. Fumble-itis could bury someone on the depth chart next year.

Josh Moyer | email

Penn State/Big Ten reporter

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