STATE COLLEGE — Penn State will gain some depth on the heels of the announcement that the NCAA has eased its sanctions and gradually will allow the Lions to add more scholarship players.
Akeel Lynch already has shown coach Bill O’Brien that augmenting the running back position won’t have to be the top priority.
Lynch ran for a career-high 123 yards against Kent State and is among three underclassmen who have been sharing handoffs from freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg.
Juniors Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton, along with Lynch, a redshirt freshman, have gained 813 yards in four games, which includes just 57 net yards against Syracuse in the opener. Zwinak leads with 297 yards on 67 carries, Lynch has 263 on 32, and Belton 253 on 33.
Penn State has scored on each of its 15 attempts from inside the 20 this season, and of its last 50 red-zone attempts dating to the middle of the Lions’ 8-4 season in 2012, the Lions have scored 46 times. That includes 21 rushing touchdowns. Ten of this year’s 12 red-zone scores have been running plays.
Those numbers are enough to keep everyone comfortably grounded — Lynch, in particular — as Penn State (3-1) prepares for its Big Ten opener at Indiana (2-2) on Oct. 5.
“We have a lot of guys that go in — me, Zach and Bill — so we have three guys who can rotate,” Lynch said Wednesday. “As of right now our team is pretty good in depth. We have three guys capable of handling the load.”
And according to O’Brien, it’s all according to plan.
“I believe in using a lot of backs, I really do,” O’Brien said after Saturday’s 34-0 victory over Kent State. “I know some teams want to use one back. Sometimes we do, we try to go with the hot back.
“We think that all three of these guys are good football players. They’re practicing well, it’s a competitive spot. We think all three deserve to play, so we rotate them in there.”
When he’s not in the lineup, the 6-foot, 211-pound Lynch watches the power moves of Zwinak and the cutting ability of Belton in order to improve his game that features a bit of both.
“Obviously, there’s lots I can improve on myself, and if I improve I can help the team get better overall,” Lynch said. “So you’re always alert with what play is called so you can take a mental picture of what’s going on out on the field. I’m just always ready to go in because with three guys rotating in, you have to be prepared.”
Lynch believes he also is effective when he doesn’t touch the ball by picking up blitzing linebackers who want to put their rough touch on Hackenberg.
“I haven’t missed a blitz since I’ve been in,” Lynch said. ”When the ball’s snapped and people are moving and the safety rotates, you’re actually picking it up.”
The health of the overall program picked up on Tuesday with the NCAA relaxing the scholarship penalty of 65 allowable scholarship players over four years instead of 85 imposed after the Jerry Sandusky child abuse scandal. When the original sanctions were handed down in 2012, Lynch took pause to consider his future.
“I thought in the long run that college is only for four years but where you go to college affects you the next 40 years,” Lynch said. “Penn State was the best choice even if football didn’t work out.
“We play football, we graduate our players. We’re just doing what the NCAA asks us to do, and we’re just going to continue to do that.”