Penn State Football: Breaking Down Nittany Lions RB Depth Heading into Offseason

Andrew Coppens@@andycoppensContributor IJanuary 31, 2014

Penn State's Zach Zwinak, left, tries to run past Wisconsin's Chris Borland (44) during the second half of an NCAA college football game on Saturday, Nov. 30, 2013, in Madison, Wis. Penn State won 31-24. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)
Morry Gash/Associated Press

Penn State comes in to this offseason with one position seemingly not an issue—running back. After all, the Nittany Lions do return a former 1,000-yard rusher, an 800-yard rusher and a former 4-star recruit on their depth chart.

There's plenty to love at this position; however, all previous assumptions about the PSU running game need to be thrown out the window. When Bill O'Brien left Penn State for the Houston Texans, previous assumptions about players, playing time and positions were about to be challenged. 

With the hire of James Franklin and a new coaching staff, it means there will be a clean slate. A fresh perspective and a new lease on life for every player in the PSU program. 

Toss out Zach Zwinak's 989 yards and 12 touchdowns. Put Bill Belton's rising season on the back burner and forget about the glimpses you got of Akeel Lynch too. 

None of what happened in the past really matters anymore; it's all about the future in Happy Valley, and nowhere on the roster will there be more competition to win over the coaching staff than at running back. 

Yes, Zwinak has shown he can handle a bruising number of carries and that he can be dependable. He's played in 22 games over the last two seasons, and heading into his senior year, Zwinak has amassed 1,989 yards and 18 touchdowns for his career. 

Belton was a nice switch from Zwinak's bruising style, and in 2013 he showed he could be more of a featured back in the offense with his 803 yards and 5.1 yards-per-carry average. 

Lynch, who came in as the No. 20-ranked running back in 2012, according to 247sports composite rankings, got some good looks in his freshman season behind the two established players. He ran for 358 yards on just 60 carries, averaging 6.0 yards per carry. 

However, with a new staff in place, there is no such thing as "established players." There are players with experience, but it doesn't mean that experience is what the new coaching staff is necessarily looking for. 

New running backs coach Charles Huff will bring a fresh perspective, as he comes to Happy Valley after working as an assistant running backs coach with the Buffalo Bills this past season. He also knows what Franklin expects, having been an offensive quality control coach at Vanderbilt in 2011. 

The question is, what will the offense look like under Franklin? 

Will it be a straight-ahead, pro-style offense with a power run game, or will it be more like the sped-up, pro-style offense he employed at Vandy? 

A look at the history of running backs at Vanderbilt suggests that what has been said by the coaching staff since Day 1—mainly that it'll fit the system to the players—is indeed true. 

In 2012, Vandy ran with Zac Stacy, a 5'8", 225-pound back, and this past year it was the more shifty and smaller Jerron Seymour taking the majority of snaps at running back. 

That should be enough to tell us this spring will be vital in determining where things will shake out in the pecking order at running back. 

Complicating the issue is that Penn State doesn't have a stable of backs who are anywhere near mirror images of each other. Zwinak is the power back, Lynch possesses that something extra on the speed front and Belton is the back that mixes the two together. 

It will be on each back to prove his worth and fit in to what Franklin and Co. will be trying to accomplish.

STATE COLLEGE, PA - JANUARY 11:  James Franklin, head coach of the Penn State Nittany Lions addresses the media on January 11, 2014 at Beaver Stadium in State College, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Should Franklin be looking for pure talent at running back, look for Lynch to be the front-runner. He's been a very intriguing prospect since he stepped on campus and is perhaps the one with the most talent. 

We all know better than to count out Zwinak, who was an afterthought when Silas Redd took his talents to USC before the 2012 season. No one foresaw a 1,000-yard season coming from a guy like that, yet he's managed to outdo expectations in the past. 

The sleeper in this group is Belton, who played an important role in the win over Michigan in 2013 but hasn't put it all together for the complete package just yet. 

One of these three will emerge as the leading back, but don't expect any of them to become silent members of the depth chart, as Franklin offenses love using multiple backs throughout the game.  

Spring football in Happy Valley will bring a lot of intrigue, but while a lot of people's attention will focus on the wide-open battle at wide receiver in the coming months, running back could be the battle that makes or breaks PSU's season in 2014. 

With a clean slate, each running back on the roster needs a good spring to improve his hopes of starting in 2014. 

May the best man win. 

Andy Coppens is Bleacher Report's lead writer for the Big Ten. You can follow him on Twitter: @ andycoppens


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