UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Bill Belton had fallen so far into the background it seemed as if he was gone.
The last images we saw of this Penn State running back in 2012 were of him on the sideline, the place where he seemed to be permanently stationed as he contributed one rush and one kick return in the final four games. This summer, the troubles continued. Belton struggled with academics and missed some workouts as a result.
Though he always said he wasn't considering a penalty-free transfer, and coach Bill O'Brien maintained Belton would be eligible, it was easy to imagine this Penn State team without Belton. No longer is that the case.
Belton has gained 369 yards this year, 5.3 yards per carry. His two rushes in the fourth overtime against Michigan gave Penn State a crucial first down and then the victory. For his play, O'Brien rewarded him with a promotion of sorts: He has moved up on the depth chart this week and is listed as a co-starter with running back Zach Zwinak.
In other words, Belton is becoming the player many thought he would be a year ago. In August 2012, once Silas Redd left for Southern California, O'Brien placed Belton at the top of the depth chart. He said Belton could get up to 20 carries a game.
It was a quick transition. Belton had first lined up that spring with the wide receivers until O'Brien decided his body type was a better fit for a running back.
The excitement slid into disappointment in the first game when his ankle was injured. Aside from a 103-yard rushing performance against Iowa, Belton largely disappointed, gaining and losing the No. 1 running back position to Zwinak. He and O'Brien met multiple times this offseason to discuss Belton's future.
Per his protocol, O'Brien won't reveal the content of those meetings. He has said that, football-wise, he wanted Belton to be more decisive. Rather than shuffle back and forth for too long in the backfield waiting for the big play, he wanted Belton to run. Mentality-wise, he wanted him to be more mature.
"I really have a connection with Bill," O'Brien said.
It's difficult to get Belton to open up about his struggles last year -- or much of anything. He is reserved and speaks with the unease of someone who is worried that something he says will be interpreted as negative. But he clearly gives off the impression of someone who listens to what O'Brien and running backs coach Charles London have told him. A quick sampling of some of his quotes this fall:
"It's not all about hitting the home run. It's taking what the defense gives you."
"As a running-back group, we come in each week preparing for whoever is going to be the guy. As a running-back group, we'll all be successful and feed off each other."
That second observation is an important one. Belton, O'Brien, Zwinak and running back Akeel Lynch have said that the competition for carries takes place every week and that whoever produces the best early in the games will end up with the most opportunities by the end.
For the season, Zwinak has the most carries with 92, Belton is with 70 and Lynch has the fewest with 35. Belton seized the greatest load against Michigan by far -- 27 compared to eight for Zwinak and none for Lynch -- but has otherwise not led Penn State in attempts this season.
Though Belton's rushes at the end of the Michigan game will be remembered as highlights, he and the other running backs did little the rest of the game and less a week earlier against Indiana. In Big Ten Conference play, Penn State is averaging 1.9 yards per carry, a number worse than every team in the conference except Purdue.
If Belton is to assume the front-and-center role once applied to him, he'll have to pull Penn State's rushing game up with him.
■ Game: Penn State (4-2, 1-1 Big Ten) at No. 4 Ohio State (7-0, 3-0), Columbus, Ohio.
■ When: 8 p.m. Saturday.
■ TV: WTAE.
Mark Dent: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-439-3791 and Twitter @mdent05.
Mark Dent: email@example.com, Twitter: @mdent05