Bill Belton, RB (5-foot-10, 202 pounds)
One of the first position moves Bill O'Brien made as head coach at Penn State was to shift Bill Belton from wide receiver, where he played during his freshman year, to tailback. The move has worked well as Belton is currently the solidified starter for the Nittany Lions' and appears to have greater confidence and comfort in the role.
Belton himself has embraced the move to tailback, a position which "seems much more natural for him," according to a program observer. It has allowed him to focus on refining his play rather than spending time building his confidence at a spot where he was not a natural fit.
With the departure of Silas Redd, PSU coaches turned to Belton to see if he could assume the first-team role. And he did exactly that.
Speed: Belton is quick off the snap and "tends to be crisp with hand-offs." He has a "strong first-step" and has shown "impressive speed off the edge." He's been focused on improving his run skills inside given his smaller stature, but has shown an ability to read and react as lanes shift. He's had a handful of major 20-30 yard runs in scrimmage sets and a few longer ones, including an 80-yard touchdown which "showed he has nice top gear."
Hands: This has been a point of emphasis from the staff and specifically O'Brien and running backs coach Charles London. Last year Belton struggled at times with ball security. In training camp they have "completely focused on (him) protecting the ball."
O'Brien himself has been seen trying to strip the ball from an unsuspecting Belton during different drills.
Belton still needs to "get rid of some bad habits" with his ball positioning, but he has made improvements overall holding on it after contact.
O'Brien (left) works on trying to strip Belton (center).
Strength: "Pound-for-pound, he's strong," as one observer explained. The consensus is that Belton has benefited largely from Craig Fitzgerald's strength program. "He's able to shed guys and deliver a hit to guys much bigger (than him)." The strength is said to be important given that his listed height of 5-10 is a stretch, so he "needs that bulk as a weapon in his game." Belton may be short in stature, but he definitely is not a small back.
Versatility: Knock on wood, as the season approached, Belton had proved to be durable. He is versatile, too. Remember, he played quarterback in high school and saw snaps as a Wildcat QB last season. But what may set him apart from Redd is an ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. In two seasons, Redd had 13 catches for 42 yards. His career long catch was 18 yards, meaning he was basically a non-threat as a receiver.
Belton will be a much different weapon. He'll catch passes out of the backfield and will even split out. He has already shown a ability to pick up yards after the catch.
Ironically enough, the one area here on which he must improve is "receiving balls on check-downs," which was a primary responsibility of his when he was a wideout. "He needs to be more aware when he turns in for a pass or makes a cut … he not always aware of the defenders around him," an observer said.
Impact: As suspected,O'Brien announced that Belton had solidified the starting position at tailback. But it's expected that the staff will rotate various backs so as not to wear him out. That said, Belton is expected to be a major weapon in the ground game, an aspect of the offense O'Brien considers to be of paramount importance this season. He'll also play an important role in the passing game. Like all young backs, he can (and likely will) improve is pass protection as he gains more experience.
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