Penn State Nittany Lions: Derek Day

Position review: Running back 

November, 27, 2012
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Zach Zwinak, Daimion StaffordBruce Thorson/US PRESSWIREZach Zwinak was a huge surprise at running back, saving the Nittany Lions and producing after more heralded players faltered in the featured role.
Every day over the next two weeks, NittanyNation will take a closer look at each position and how Penn State fared over the course of the season.

Up today: Running back.

If one position symbolized Bill O'Brien's "next man up" philosophy, it would be this one. Bill Belton started the season as the main tailback, a sophomore who was expected to get 20-25 touches a game. Then he went down, and on came an ineffective Derek Day.

Five most improved players since Week 1 

November, 13, 2012
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Zach Zwinak, Daimion StaffordBruce Thorson/US PRESSWIREZach Zwinak was buried on Penn State's depth chart this summer, and now he's the Nittany Lions' best running back.

NittanyNation asked several players for their opinions and also looked at the tape to find Penn State's five most improved players since Week 1:

1. RB Zach Zwinak
He entered Week 1 as a player vying to become the fourth option at tailback: Bill Belton, Derek Day and Michael Zordich were on pace to get more playing time. But as injuries piled up, Zwinak made the most of his limited opportunities and quickly became Penn State's top tailback. He's rushed for at least 90 yards in five of the last seven contests. And in the last two games, he topped 130 yards. He's almost never tackled in the backfield and he even flashed some surprising speed against the Cornhuskers. Zwinak didn't just rise to become the top tailback on this offense. He's one of the team's best players.

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Penn State 10: Week 10 power rankings 

November, 5, 2012
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Welcome to Week 10 of NittanyNation's power rankings, a top-10 list of Penn State players who are surpassing expectations, and who to keep an eye on.

After a win on the road at Purdue, several offensive contributors returned to the list. Some new players also stepped up, and a few made big leaps on the list.

Whose performance left the biggest impression, and whose contributions were the most surprising? This week's top 10:

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Breaking down PSU's remaining offers 

October, 11, 2012
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With about four scholarships left to give this year, Penn State coach Bill O'Brien and his staff are treading carefully -- but that doesn't mean they're starting to relax.

Quarterbacks coach Charlie Fisher has taken to the road this week, and Tuesday he was in Iowa. On Friday, O'Brien and assistant coach Charles London will be in Fork Union, Va.

They've been working the phones this week, and it appears the staff is now focusing on four positions for those remaining scholarships. Penn State might choose to hold on to two offers after signing day, just in case a player decides to bolt during the offseason, but the staff seems intent to sign players at these four positions.

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5 biggest surprises so far this season 

October, 10, 2012
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Bill O'BrienChristopher Weddle/Centre Daily Times/MCT/Getty ImagesBill O'Brien has Penn State on a four-game winning streak going into the bye.

No one would have blamed Bill O'Brien if his Penn State team managed to win just two games to this point. No one would have cursed his name if the offense struggled or regressed from last season.

But, somehow, some way, O'Brien and the Nittany Lions have tossed aside low expectations and won four straight heading into this bye week.

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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Bill Belton woke up Sunday morning and, for once, didn't feel sore.

After a three-week absence, he felt comfortable. He didn't limp, didn't wince and was finally able to push that first game toward the back of his mind.

"During those three weeks, I was constantly replaying that first game in my head and looking for things to improve on," he said Tuesday afternoon. "That was my motivation."

Belton fell to the turf in the third quarter of the opener, clutched his left ankle, and later watched a golf cart shuttle him to the locker room. The sophomore tailback insisted that scene didn't replay over in his mind at nighttime; it was then he turned toward his teammates and family for strength.

For three weeks, he didn't speak to the media. He tweeted Bible verses on overcoming obstacles, such as Luke 8:48. ("Then he said to her, 'Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace.' ") And his mother, Carmalena, said last week she wasn't sure when her son would return -- but that he was working hard.

"I wanted to get back, so I did anything to get me back," said Belton, who remains the unquestioned starter after rushing for 65 yards against Illinois.

Now that he's returned, his teammates have said he's the same tailback, the same speedy, sure-handed athlete who adds another layer to this complicated offense. But Belton isn't coming back to the same team.

Before the opener, Bill O'Brien addressed a circle of reporters and told them Belton would be the main back, a sophomore who could carry the ball 20-25 times a contest. Belton relished that role, but O'Brien said Tuesday that's no longer the case.

With a revolving carousel of runners this season, the coaching staff has watched a few break out. Zach Zwinak, formerly the team's last option at tailback, out-rushed Belton against Illinois for 100 yards on 19 carries. Michael Zordich and Derek Day have also taken cracks at starting.

"I'd say it's more 12-15 carries a game," O'Brien said. "We ran the ball 52 times in the Illinois game, and nobody's really going to carry 52 times for us. Things change as the season goes on."

A soft-spoken Belton said the new team dynamic didn't bother him. He's a believer in everything-happens-for-a-reason, and he seemed content to finally be practicing with his teammates instead of working with the trainers.

"It's not frustrating. We're a team, and different backs can do different things," he said. "We all complement each other. I wouldn't say it's frustrating."

Belton says he's 100 percent now, even if he does sport taped ankles in practice. He called Northwestern a must-win and said he didn't care if he had five carries or 50 carries -- as long as the Nittany Lions added another mark in the 'W' column.

"As long as we get a team win, we're perfectly all right with that," he added.

5 storylines: PSU vs. Illinois 

September, 27, 2012
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Every week, NittanyNation takes a look at five storylines that stand out: What should fans keep an eye on? What's the bigger picture? What might be on display Saturday?

Here are NittanyNation's Week 5 storylines:

1. "Poaching" PSU players: When Tim Beckman's staff stepped foot on Penn State's campus after the sanctions, animosity was instantly created between the Fighting Illini and the Nittany Lions. Players tried to deflect any talk of the rivalry this week, but tailback Derek Day admitted the team was offended. Ryan Nowicki was the lone Penn State player to transfer to Champaign, and PSU cornerback Stephon Morris called him a coward at media day.

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Watch: Derek Day on the backfield rotation

September, 26, 2012
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Running backs finally healthy for PSU

September, 25, 2012
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Penn State is finally trading in its ball-carrier carousel for a committee approach.

After an injury-riddled month that saw four different tailbacks start four games, Bill O'Brien said everyone finally appears to be healthy -- including starter Bill Belton, who suffered a severe ankle sprain in the opener.

"He practiced yesterday and looked decent, so we would anticipate him being ready to go for the game," O'Brien said Tuesday.

Michael Zordich did not practice Monday but planned to be in pads Tuesday. Derek Day said he's already receiving practice reps, and O'Brien said Saturday that Curtis Dukes' injury was not serious.

All those healthy additions now shift O'Brien's philosophy from "Next man up" to ... well, he's not entirely sure yet.

"It's definitely tough to use all five, but I definitely see us using two or three," he said. "It depends on how they practice during the week."

O'Brien and assistant coach Charles London sat down with the five running backs to inform them playing time will be a reflection of practice. Day shook his head when asked if the competition created animosity, knowing his playing time might be reduced, and said he was pleased because this would ultimately help the team.

"It adds to the competitiveness of our practices and it makes each guy show up every day and try to show the coaches what we have to offer," he said.

Penn State's stable of running backs hasn't been healthy since the second quarter of the Ohio game. Belton grimaced when he fell in the third quarter, and a golf cart shuttled him to the locker room. He hasn't seen the field since, and a domino line of injuries followed.

Penn State struggled running in the first three games and averaged just 3.5 yards a carry. Against Temple, Zordich and Zach Zwinak -- now known as the Killer Z's -- pounded the middle for more than 5 yards with every touch.

And if PSU can run the ball with two fullbacks, some players are wondering just how this offense might look with a speedy Belton, powerful Dukes and balanced Day.

"I'm really curious," linebacker Mike Hull said Tuesday. "The running backs that filled in did a great job, but getting these guys back is really going to make a difference and create some problems this week."

3 Up, 3 Down: Penn State 24, Temple 13 

September, 23, 2012
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- The good and the bad from Penn State's 24-13 win over Temple on Saturday:

THREE UP

1. Passing game: Coming into this game, Matt McGloin believed Temple's defense might be the best his team's faced yet this season. On paper, it sure looked like it. The Owls boasted an experienced secondary, but McGloin responded by having one of the best games in his career. He tossed completions to nine different receivers and threw for 318 yards. He did throw an interception, but it bounced off his intended receiver's hands. McGloin's looked better each week, and he could surprise even more when the conference season begins.

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Notebook: Who are the 'Supa Six'?

September, 21, 2012
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It started out as a joke and ended with a hashtag.

Early last season, six of Penn State's Class of 2011 recruits began calling their close-knit group the "Supa Six," and the nickname recently caught on. They're now ending their tweets with #supasix, and fans have embraced the nickname.

Three redshirt freshman are part of the group: Deion Barnes, Kyle Carter, Donovan Smith. And three sophomores: Adrian Amos, Bill Belton and Allen Robinson.

[+] EnlargeBill Belton
AP Photo/Keith SrakocicPenn State sophomore RB Bill Belton, who is one of the 'Supa Six,' is also regarded by teammates as one of the team's toughest tailbacks to bring down.
Just don't ask their teammates to embrace it. Even if the six are all starters.

"I don't really care what those guys do," said quarterback Matt McGloin. "As long as they play good Saturday, they can call themselves whatever they want."

Barnes, who leads the team in sacks (3), said the group -- ahem, Supa Six -- worked together in the offseason. He knew the extra work would pay off, "but we didn't know it was going to happen this fast."

Offensive guard John Urschel was also quizzed this week about the Supa Six. He seemed slightly confused and then answered in such a way that his eye-rolls could be heard over the phone.

"I'm not really on top of this Supa Six thing, to be perfectly honest," he said. "I think they have T-shirts or have a sign with their hands. I'm not really up to speed."

With the six already committed to finish their careers at Penn State, expect to hear a lot from them for two more seasons. All of them will likely finish their careers as three-year or four-year starters.

Hardest to tackle? Mike Hull was asked, in practice, to name the tailback who is the toughest to bring down. He thought for a moment but then came up with two -- and it wasn't two of the heavier players.

"Bill Belton's pretty tough because he's so shifty," Hull said. "So, whenever you're in the open field, it's pretty tough. But Derek Day brings an X factor because he can run you over, too. They're surprisingly physical."

Best defense: Temple's defense is ranked No. 45 in yards allowed, one spot ahead of Ohio, but two Penn State players believe this weekend could be the offense's toughest test of the early season.

McGloin and Urschel voiced some concerns with an Owls defense that has the most experienced secondary they've seen so far.

"We have our work cut out for us this week," McGloin said, "and we're trying to watch as much football this week and prepare for, probably, the best defense we've played so far."

Philadelphia connections: Seven Penn State players hail from the Philly area -- Anthony Alosi, Mark Arcidiacono, Joe Baker, Barnes, Pete Massaro, Carl Nassib and Pat Zerbe.

Temple coach Steve Addazio pointed to Barnes as the type of player he needs to recruit.

"You're hoping to get a few of those guys, and that'll happen," Addazio said. "That's part of the growth of where we're at. ... There's so much talent surrounding Philadelphia, and those are things we're trying to get done."

Biggest player surprise: What player has most exceeded expectations this year? According to Urschel, the answer is linebacker Ben Kline.

"I'd say that Ben Kline has been doing a great job for us," he said. "He's been doing a phenomenal job for us on special teams. ... He's been a very good player for us, very physical player. He's been making some plays for us; he's going to be one of our great linebackers in future years."

5 storylines: PSU vs. Temple 

September, 20, 2012
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Every week, NittanyNation takes a look at five storylines that stand out: What should fans keep an eye on? What's the bigger picture? What might be on display Saturday?

Here are NittanyNation's Week 4 storylines:

1. Temple hasn't beaten PSU since 1941. The Nittany Lions are 29-0-1 in the last 30 meetings, but the last two contests have been close. Penn State won on the road last season, 14-10, and won at Beaver Stadium the year before, 22-13. Temple's getting better and Penn State started off slow. Can this be the first time in 71 years the Owls get the win?

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Practice notebook: Belton still missing

September, 19, 2012
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Another open practice, another question at tailback.

Bill Belton missed the beginning of Wednesday's open practice, but Derek Day stretched and practiced with the running backs. Day is recovering from a separated shoulder, and he's still questionable for Saturday.

Day's recovery is ahead of Belton's, according to Bill O'Brien, but the coach still couldn't guarantee either would play Saturday. If neither tailback can go, Penn State will likely go with what worked last week: Michael Zordich and Curtis Dukes.

Zordich got the nod Wednesday with the first-team offense near the goal-line, while Dukes watched from the sideline.

"These guys get beat up during the season. They're running backs," O'Brien said Tuesday. "That's the nature of the position, so the next guy has got to be ready to go."

Zordich and Dukes took turns catching short passes from the quarterbacks and practiced a few drills with assistant coach Charles London. Zordich showed good hands and balance, but Dukes and Zach Zwinak struggled staying in-bounds on throws near the sideline.

On one play, Zwinak caught the ball on the run and slipped while he cut -- leaving about a foot-long divot near the sideline.

Open tryouts: While practice was under way, about 70 students gathered inside neighboring Holuba Hall in hopes to make the football team -- likely as part of the scout team.

O'Brien said he hoped to find a few defensive backs or linemen, but it's clear he wouldn't turn down a kicker. With Matt Marcincin's departure last week -- and Sam Ficken's struggles -- Penn State could certainly use another place-kicker.

Strength and conditioning coach Craig Fitzgerald timed some players, while another man told the potential walk-ons the theme of the day was "follow directions."

Injuries: Left tackle Donovan Smith also did not appear during the 30-minute open window of Wednesday practice.

O'Brien said if Smith couldn't practice Tuesday, he likely wouldn't play Saturday. Mike Farrell and Adam Gress took over at the tackle spots in his absence.

True freshman linebacker Nyeem Wartman was not dressed and limped with a large ice pack on his knee. Even O'Brien didn't try to hide the severity of his injury Tuesday.

"I wouldn't expect him back for a while," he said.

Kickin' Ficken: Ficken made his first field goal attempt in practice from about 37 yards but missed his second a hair right. He nailed his third.

"I have belief in Sam," O'Brien said Tuesday.

Kevin DiSanto converted his pair of attempts, although they were about 10 yards shorter than Ficken's tries.

Splitting up: Tight ends Kyle Carter and Paul Jones play at a lot of spots as f-tight ends, but it was interesting to see them both split wide -- together -- on Wednesday.

Jones caught a few good passes Wednesday, although the offense kept it simple while the media was watching. McGloin and Steven Bench didn't attempt a pass over 10 yards, but Jones did manage to haul in an over-the-middle pass that was thrown slightly below his waist.

Tuesdays with O'Brien: Upcoming tryouts

September, 18, 2012
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Michael Mauti Andrew Weber-US PresswireCoach Bill O'Brien usually declines comment on individual players, but on Tuesday he spoke glowingly of Big Ten defensive player of the week Michael Mauti (42), a player with whom he said he'll keep in touch for the rest of his life.

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Bill O'Brien has stressed the importance of walk-ons this season -- and today's weekly news conference was no different.

Penn State will hold open tryouts Wednesday evening at Holuba Hall, and O'Brien said he hopes to unearth a handful of contributors.

"I'd say, positionally, hopefully there's some DBs in the crowd there," O'Brien said. "That's the position right now that we're looking for. Other than that, I just want to get out there and see if we can go out and find some good football players."

Thirteen players have left the team since July 23, when the NCAA levied unprecedented sanctions against Penn State, and those departures have created depth issues. O'Brien has just two place-kickers on the roster following Matt Marcincin's departure last week.

On defense, true freshman Da'Quan Davis played in three games and now boasts more experience than most of the secondary's backups.

"Males or females, I'm not sure how many will show up," O'Brien said. "But we'll see after practice tomorrow."

Injuries: O'Brien remained mostly mum on injuries to his tailbacks, but he said Derek Day was slightly ahead of Bill Belton in terms of recovery. He said they're both day-to-day.

(Read full post)

Dukes, Zordich take over for injured RBs

September, 15, 2012
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- With its two starting tailbacks sidelined with injuries, the Nittany Lions were expected to struggle running the ball.

Instead, the two bruising backup tailbacks -- Michael Zordich and Curtis Dukes -- combined for 22 carries and 98 yards. Maybe that number isn't all that impressive, but the duo averaged a full yard more on each carry than Penn State's rushing attack managed in the first two games.

Dukes and Zordich grinded for about 4.5 yards a carry Saturday. Entering the game, PSU averaged about 3.3 yards per rushing attempt.

Bill O'Brien said Zordich, who usually plays fullback, was in his ear constantly this week about his ability to run the ball. "I used to the run the ball in high school, coach," O'Brien said Zordich kept reminding him. "I used to run the ball in high school, coach."

"He's like Ferris Bueller's teacher," O'Brien said with a laugh.

Zordich ran 11 times for 50 yards, and Dukes had 11 attempts for 48 yards. The statuses of starter Bill Belton and backup Derek Day remain uncertain.

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