Penn State’s run game was virtually non-existent last season, but Akeel Lynch is looking to change that in 2015.
Yes, the same program that produced All-Big Ten running backs Evan Royster, Larry Johnson and Curtis Enis was the Big Ten’s worst rushing team a season ago, barely rushing for more than 100 yards a game. Only eight FBS teams were worse, and only two of those — Wake Forest and Washington State — were from Power 5 conferences.
And on top of that, two parts of the not-so-monstrous three-headed running back monster departed this offseason in Bill Belton and Zach Zwinak. Lynch, the only returning member of that trio, led the team with 678 rushing yards. Belton was second with 526 yards, and Zwinak had only 112 yards in just seven games.
The depth seems to be sapped at running back, but that’s not entirely true. Lynch will undoubtedly be the lead man, forced from the young-gun role into the role of elder statesman in a group that has no experience outside of him. Of the other six running backs on the roster, one is a senior walk-on who plays mostly special teams, and the other five are freshmen, either true freshmen or redshirt freshmen. One of that group is highly touted Class of 2015 recruit Saquon Barkley, the 11th-best running back in the country and second-best player in the state of Pennsylvania, per Rivals. But that hype doesn’t mean any collegiate experience.
It leaves Lynch as the one guy in the backfield Penn State knows it can depend on.
“I'd love for him from Day 1 until the end of the season to make it clearly obvious that we've got one big-time running back that we're going to be able to hang our hat on while we're developing those other guys, and according to (director of performance enhancement Dwight) Galt, his staff and our players, Akeel has done that,” Franklin said earlier this month during the team’s media day. “He's been a tremendous leader with the young running backs and the young players. He's probably been as consistent and as hard working as anybody in our program. He’s just done a great job. He's been patient and kind of waited for his time, and he's prepared that when that time comes, he's going to be ready.”
“The role for me is kind of new because I’m used to being the younger guy behind Bill and Zach. But now I’m the older guy, and it switched,” Lynch said. “It’s kind of refreshing to be the older guy and have guys come up to you. Being the older guy, I know where they’re coming from, but also it’s a new experience for me being the older guy this year.”
Those rushing numbers last year were not good, and that can be at least partially attributed to an offensive line that took a lot of heat last season not only for not creating enough holes for running backs but for letting Christian Hackenberg get sacked 44 times. But as sour as the team’s numbers were, Lynch finished the season strong. Almost 60 percent of his season rushing total came in the Nittany Lions’ final four games. He had back-to-back huge games against Temple and Illinois, rushing for a combined 267 yards and a pair of touchdowns. And he added 126 yards and another touchdown over the final two games against Michigan State and Boston College.
Plus, having the backfield a little more to himself this season could allow him to establish a bit more consistency.
He might not be grabbing the same attention as Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott, Wisconsin’s Corey Clement or Northwestern’s Justin Jackson, but Penn State coaches, at least, have tremendously high hopes for their No. 1 back.
“I can't wait to see him play this year. I cannot wait,” offensive coordinator John Donovan said. “From the little that we're allowed to be around them right now, he seems very focused and locked in, very determined. He ended the year last year on a great note. I think that he's got a chance to really take the reins right now and provide some leadership and provide us with a very good back to help us in the run game, and I'm really excited to see what he can do.”
He might not get into the Big Ten Running Back of the Year conversation, but he might be able to do enough to drag the Lions out of last place when it comes to running the ball.