Penn State’s Lynch Practices Patience

Despite averaging an eye-popping 7.7 ypc, the redshirt sophomore has had limited touches this season.

When he is on Penn State's sideline (which is often), sophomore tailback Akeel Lynch makes certain to know the play the Nittany Lions are running, just so he can envision what someone playing his position must do -- and, indeed, what he would do if he were in the game.

Certainly there are those in the stands and the press box who have been wondering for a while now just how Lynch would perform as well.

He gave yet another hint of his abilities last Saturday, running for a team-high 81 yards on eight carries in the 48-7 rout of Massachusetts, including a 46-yard burst in the first quarter and a 15-yard touchdown in the third.

Granted, UMass was not the best test, but Lynch again showed he possesses an enviable combination of size (6-foot, 221 pounds), speed and elusiveness. And it led one reporter to ask coach James Franklin if Lynch had earned more carries.

“Are you related to Akeel?” Franklin asked, cheerfully.

Then the coach went into a long-winded explanation of how he has three tailbacks he feels good about -- Bill Belton and Zach Zwinak being the others -- and how he has to continually rotate all of them, in order to keep them fresh. How that will serve the team well in the course of a game, and the season.

Franklin expanded on that point during his weekly news conference Tuesday, as the Nittany Lions (4-0) prepare for Saturday's home date against Northwestern (1-2). He said he tries to get each of the top three tailbacks a series early in each game, and that there are certain plays earmarked for each of the three as well.

“But basically,” he said, “we're going to allow each one of those guys to get a series, and whoever the guy (is) who looks like he's going to be most effective, then we'll go with them a little bit longer, or maybe even go with them the rest of the game.”

To date Belton has seen most of the snaps, and Zwinak has seen some -- though not as many as the last two years under Franklin's predecessor, Bill O'Brien. The 233-pound Zwinak, who rushed for 1,000 yards in 2012 and 989 last season, mostly plays on short-yardage downs.

Lynch? He has been used only in low-risk situations, and/or against weak opponents.

Through four games he has 17 carries for 131 yards (second-most on the team), an average of 7.7 a pop. Besides Saturday's workload he carried seven times (for 45 yards) against Akron, a 21-3 PSU victory. He had just one attempt each against Central Florida and Rutgers.

It was the same thing last year, when Lynch ran 60 times for 358 yards (6.0 a carry). Fourteen of his carries (for 123 yards) came against Kent State, 13 (for 108) against Eastern Michigan, two blowouts. He also had 11 (for 35) against Ohio State, a one-sided game in the other direction.

The Toronto native, nicknamed “The Big Maple” by his teammates, is still relatively new to American football, having played it his last two years at a high school near Buffalo and now three in college, including a redshirt season. There is always talk that his blocking isn't up to snuff, and he has yet to catch a pass at Penn State.

But if you look at the Lions' top three tailbacks purely in terms of running ability, he is more physical than Belton and shiftier than Zwinak. Even Franklin admitted after Saturday's game that Lynch is “kind of a combination of the two,” something he reiterated on Tuesday.

Yet, he sits. But not impatiently, Lynch insisted after the game and in a conference call with reporters Tuesday. He takes mental reps. He asks questions of the other backs. He takes notes in meetings.

“I've always believed that when your time comes, your time will come,” he said on the conference call, “so I just don't really try to worry about the things I can't control. I just worry about what I can control, which is my attitude and my effort. … I just control my practice habits, how I'm tuned in mentally to the game, and when my name is called I've just got to seize the moment.”

He admits that he, like every player coming out of high school, wanted to play as a true freshman, and there was some talk of that in 2012, after Belton and Derek Day, the backup tailback at the time, were injured in the first two games of the season. But ultimately O'Brien settled on Zwinak, and Lynch redshirted.

It was not the worst thing, he said Tuesday, in that he was able to acclimate himself to college life outside of football, while also improving at “the things I have to improve upon -- pass protection, taking care of my body, flexibility and the other things that I overlooked in high school, because I was just more athletic than everybody else. It made me fine-tune some of my skills.”

“I’ve always believed that when your time comes, your time will come, so I just don’t really try to worry about the things I can’t control. I just worry about what I can control, which is my attitude and my effort.”

Since then he has endeavored to stay “mentally tuned in,” knowing that he is always one play away from live action. And he has tried to make the most of his opportunities, like the one that arose Saturday. Everybody did, seeing as the Lions, anemic on the ground in the season's first three games, ran 45 times for 228 yards. That was over twice their previous season high (106, against Akron).

Lynch repeated on Tuesday what he said after the game -- that that effort should be regarded as “a stepping stone” for a rushing attack that is still ranked only 105th among 125 major-college teams, averaging 113.8 yards a game.

“It's not where we end at,” he said, “but it's definitely a good step to where we want to be at. It's definitely a confidence-booster, and something we can build off of.”

He went on to say that the running game can be “as good as we want it to be.”

“I think it starts with us as running backs first,” he said. “We pointed no fingers when the running game was not going our way. We looked at ourselves first and how we can improve our performance individually. … And the O-line did the same. I think this week showed it. Now we've just got to take the next step from there.”

The Lions will look to take another step against Northwestern, a team that is just 10th in the Big Ten against the run (139.7) and in total defense (397.0), as well as 11th against the pass (257.3).

As for Lynch, he figures to take another step next year, when Belton and Zwinak will both be gone and he will be the most experienced back on the roster. It will be his job to groom guys like Nick Scott, Johnathan Thomas and Mark Allen, all of whom are being redshirted this season.

“I think my mindset is just to conduct myself like a starter, no matter the situation I'm placed in,” Lynch said. “That's kind of mindset I've been taught to come into college, because no matter what there's always someone trying to take your job. … I definitely try to lead by example -- by working hard, by taking notes, asking questions. I definitely tried to have the leader aspect, the day I got here. It's something I've always tried to strive for.”

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