Bill Belton does not feel as if he has arrived.
This in itself might explain how the Penn State junior — who began his college career as a receiver, was moved to running back almost immediately and has won, lost and won back the starting job — is where he is today.
Because he sees this as a beginning, not an end.
The Nittany Lions will play the Gophers at TCF Bank Stadium Saturday, looking to improve on their 5-3 record. Belton was named the Big Ten’s co-offensive player of the week after rushing for 201 yards on 36 carries Saturday in an overtime victory over Illinois. Belton, in becoming the first Penn State player since 2002 to rush for 200 yards, was not tackled a for loss in the game, using his strength to run up the middle, his quickness on countless cutbacks.
“It’s very rewarding,” he said. “But it’s not over yet. It’s basically just the beginning, and there’s still a lot more football left. So I have to stay focused on that.”
If this is the beginning, it was a long one. In 2012, Penn State’s new coach, Bill O’Brien, looked at the 5-10, 205-pound Belton — a dual-threat quarterback at Winslow Township (N.J.) High School — and decided he should be a running back. But Belton injured an ankle in Penn State’s first game that season. He struggled, ultimately losing the starting job to Zach Zwinak. Then, over the summer, Belton had to work to become academically eligible for the start of preseason camp.
This season he began as a backup. But Zwinak’s problem with fumbles, coupled with Belton’s improved play, changed things. After running for the winning touchdown in a four-overtime victory over Michigan on Oct. 12, Belton was moved to the top of the depth chart. A week later, against Ohio State, he ran 22 times for 98 yards. Then, against Illinois, Belton basically blew up. For the season, Belton has rushed 128 times for 668 yards, a 5.2-yard average, and four TDs.
“I think it takes a while,” O’Brien said. “We moved him from receiver to running back when he got here. I don’t think that’s the easiest transition. Then he was injured last year, had the bad high ankle sprain, and never totally came back from that. Now he’s healthy. He’s had a year in the system. He’s doing better off the field, which helps his mindset on the field. It’s encouraging. We feel good about that young man.”
A stronger running game has provided Penn State better offensive balance, taking some of the pressure off 18-year-old freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg. To take another step in the post-Joe Paterno era, the Nittany Lions have to prove they can win on the road. Penn State opened the season with a neutral-site victory over Syracuse at East Rutherford, N.J. Since then, the Lions are 4-1 at home but 0-2 on the road, losing 44-24 at Indiana and 63-14 at Ohio State.
Against the Gophers, Penn State will need to establish the run. And that starts with Belton.
“He’s had a couple big games as of late, and they’re not a one-dimensional team at all,” Gophers cornerback Brock Vereen said. “So it’s going to be a situation where the D-line, linebackers and secondary all have to come to play, if we expect to stop them.”
Belton, meanwhile, never really felt he would be stopped.
“I never doubted myself, even when things hit the wall,” he said. “I always had belief in myself. And my parents always told me to keep that about me, and I did. So everything worked out.”
Staff writer Joe Christensen contributed to this report.