Belton wearing his No. 1 well as new starting back
August 15, 2012 12:00 PM
Penn State running back Bill Belton stretches at practice.
By Mark Dent Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- The cameras clicked and clacked around Penn State sophomore running back Bill Belton. A media mob targeted him and circled.
He wore a jersey with a brand new digit of his choice on the back, No. 1. Someone made the cliché conclusion for him and waited for his answer.
He paused. He paused some more. Smiled a little. Was that a laugh?
He didn't say anything, and he didn't speculate on how many yards he planned to gain this season, either.
"I don't know, sir," he said. "I'm just going to go out there to the best of my ability."
This is Belton's new reality. It has a fishbowl quality to it and officially began last Monday. That's when coach Bill O'Brien said Belton would be the team's starting running back.
Belton would be considered the first option -- yes, No. 1 -- to replace the vital measure of offense lost with the departed Silas Redd.
The transition began in the spring, when Redd was still on the team and O'Brien was still figuring out his way around Happy Valley. The coach watched as Belton trekked toward a drill with the rest of the wide receivers -- wait, with the wide receivers?
"Running backs have a certain look to them," O'Brien said.
O'Brien said the sweet spot height for a running back is between 5 feet 9 and 5 feet 11, with a muscular build and a low center of gravity.
"Unless it's Danny Woodhead, who is a special case," O'Brien added.
"Or Adrian Peterson, who is a big dude."
On that spring day, Belton did not look like Adrian Peterson, the Minnesota Vikings star.
He did look about 5 feet 10 and muscular. He looked like O'Brien's version of a running back, providing the impetus for O'Brien to tell Belton to switch positions.
The coach watched in spring camp as Belton illustrated strong footwork and skill with his hands. He could do something O'Brien considered unique. Belton could put his hand on the ground, balance himself and spin.
This quick adaptation did make sense. Belton was never really a wide receiver, unless you consider it typical for a wide receiver to catch one pass all year and otherwise run the ball. Last season, Belton rushed 13 times for 65 yards. He caught one pass.
"Running the ball isn't something new," Belton said.
He did not have to learn new skills, so the hardest part for him was to learn the plays from a different spot on the field. He needed to pick up blocking schemes and memorize where he had to be. Redd helped him.
Redd was often there, reminding him to be patient, telling him to pick up useful yards rather than dream of a touchdown on every rep. Of course, Belton had no idea back then that this season would begin without Redd, who transferred to Southern California last month after the NCAA handed down sanctions against the football program.
Penn State's running back situation looks like this: Belton, Derek Day, Zach Zwinak and Curtis Dukes.
Dukes has 43 career carries, the others a combined 23. The inexperienced players must develop quickly, especially Belton. O'Brien said he could carry the ball 20 times a game.
He's going to be the man, something even Redd acknowledged. Before he left for Southern California, he told Belton that it was his time.
Belton knows. He's excited. You can hear it in his word choice.
In a seven-minute span during media day last week, Belton referred to the date of the first game, Sept. 1, eight times. He used the word "opportunity" six times.
This new reality will be tough, full of comparisons to Redd and desires from fans to always be something more, but at least Belton is willing to embrace it.
"It's definitely a transition," he said, "in some respects."
• Game: Penn State vs. Ohio in the opener, Beaver Stadium.