CHICAGO -- For the last few games of the 2012 season coach Bill O'Brien refused to declare a No. 1 running back for Penn State. No matter how many carries one back received on a given Saturday, O'Brien would say the competition was still open the next week.
That has changed going into this season.
On Thursday, O'Brien said running back Zach Zwinak was his preliminary starter and that he expected Zwinak to be healthy for preseason camp after injuring his wrist in the Blue-White game in April.
Last year, Zwinak rushed for 1,000 yards. While one of his biggest strengths is his physical, downhill running style (he had only 7 negative yards all year), he struggled with controlling the ball, fumbling several times late in the season.
O'Brien said redshirt freshman Akeel Lynch would also get time at running back.
Lynch rushed for 83 yards and a touchdown during the spring game.
Junior Bill Belton, who began last year as the starting running back but saw his repetitions decrease because of injuries and Zwinak's emergence, hasn't participated as much in the second half of summer workouts for academic reasons, O'Brien said at Big Ten Conference media days. The coach said he was reducing Belton's workload and expected him to be academically eligible for the season.
Assuming he's eligible, O'Brien would like to see Belton return to the type of runner he was against Iowa, when he ran for 103 yards on 16 carries and scored three touchdowns. During that game, O'Brien said he was decisive, finding the holes in the defense and charging ahead. Too often, O'Brien said, Belton shuffles around in the backfield, causing him to lose yards and putting him at greater risk for injury.
Targeting rule a major topic
Because of a rule change approved in May, NCAA defensive players who "target" and contact offensive players above the shoulders will be ejected automatically from games. Previously, such hits resulted in a 15-yard penalty.
The rule was made for safety reasons but has caused a stir because the enforcement of the rule is, essentially, a judgment call by an official. A player could be thrown out for a hit that could seemingly go either way.
"If you're defenseless, you should be protected," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "But there will be some hits that I'm looking forward to learning from and seeing exactly how that's going to be officiated."
In the Penn State-Illinois game last year, Illinois safety Earnest Thomas was ejected for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Penn State tight end Matt Lehman. This new targeting rule leads to disqualification for lesser hits.
"We learned from it," Illinois coach Tim Beckman said. "We're still going to be as aggressive as we possibly can with our schemes and doing the things that are necessary to be successful on defense. But the awareness of the fact that targeting is going to be looked at and called more aggressively is something that, again, we have to inform our players and educate our players so that they are not targeting."
Awards and watch lists
Penn State wide receiver Allen Robinson was one of 10 players officially selected by the Big Ten as part of the preseason Big Ten players to watch list. So far this preseason, seven Penn State players have been named to various watch lists for awards: Robinson (Big Ten, Biletnikoff); defensive end Deion Barnes (Bednarik, Nagurski); running back Zach Zwinak (Doak Walker, Maxwell); linebacker Glenn Carson (Butkus); tight end Kyle Carter (Mackey); defensive tackle DaQuan Jones (Outland) and offensive guard John Urschel (Outland and Rotary Lombardi).psusports
Mark Dent: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-439-3791 and Twitter @mdent05.