DUBLIN — The one thing you could count on regarding Penn State’s running backs last year was competition. Former coach Bill O’Brien never officially named a starter. Each week, the decision came down to practice and the hot hand in the game. Regardless of how the depth chart looked, would Zach Zwinak, Bill Belton or Akeel Lynch stand out and get the most reps?
For 2014, they’re all back. Penn State again has three serviceable running backs to choose from. And coach James Franklin plans to be like O’Brien. He will employ Zwinak, Belton and Lynch.
“I think, No. 1, if you look across the country, college and the NFL, you really need three running backs for the whole season,” Franklin said. “To keep those guys healthy and fresh and rotate them so that you have a chance to dictate the terms of the game and force your will on your opponent in the fourth quarter and to do those things late in the season, you’re going to have to do that.”
Zwinak, Belton and Lynch combined for more than 2,100 yards last season. Zwinak led the trio with 989, Belton had 803 and Lynch 358. All served different roles. Belton was the best blocker and receiver. Zwinak was good in short-yardage situations. Lynch averaged the most yards per carry.
Wednesday, Zwinak said their differing strengths helped shape the group.
“I think it’s nice that we all know what we do best and can do it from there,” he said.
Though it comes as little surprise, Franklin tipped off that Lynch is likely to get the least carries of the three. He said earlier this year that he likes his third running back to return kicks so that he can get some extra touches. Lynch is listed as Penn State’s No. 1 kick-returner.
“There are a lot of ways to do it, but I really believe three is the number that you need to have, anyway, and we are blessed to have three guys that we feel really good about,” Franklin said.
It’s strictly business
Franklin stuck to the company line about this being a business trip for his players. They’ve had few activities. Aside from dinner at the Guinness Storehouse Thursday night and a planned bus tour Friday, the trip has “been meetings and it’s been practice.”
“This is a game,” Franklin said. “This is a game against Central Florida that happens to be in Ireland.”
Rough conditions possible
Given this is Ireland, the game Saturday could feature swirling winds and rain. Quarterback Christian Hackenberg said he routinely practices throwing with a wet ball and doesn’t expect that to be a problem.
Something else about the setup might affect him, though. Croke Park, with its usual uses for hurling and Gaelic football, features a massive field. Hackenberg will be dealing with spatial conditions unlike any he has seen before.
“I won’t know until we go out and throw the ball,” he said. “But that is something I thought about. It will be different…but we’ll see how dramatic it is.”
Mark Dent: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-439-3791 and Twitter @mdent05.