Penn State fans have been clamoring for more of Akeel Lynch, the redshirt sophomore running back who is averaging a team-high 6.5 yards per carry in an otherwise plodding Nittany Lion rushing attack. For the final five games of the regular season, it looks like they are going to get their wish.
But it is not happening in the way Lynch had hoped. The athletic 6-foot, 221-pounder had been splitting backup reps with senior Zach Zwinak. That changed last Saturday, when Zwinak sustained a left foot or ankle injury (PSU has not clarified which) while blocking on the opening kickoff of the double overtime loss to Ohio State.
Penn State announced Monday that the injury ended Zwinak's college career. Though they competed for playing time, Belton said he was always close with Zwinak, and praised him for his experience and leadership.
It's always sad when you see one of your friends go down, Lynch said. But you realize it's your turn to step up. It is bittersweet -- you never want it to be like this, when you see one of your friends go down and you get your opportunity.
But that's sometimes how life works, he added.
Lynch had a team-high 13 carries vs. OSU -- more even than starter Bill Belton -- and with 38 yards proved to be the only semi-effective weapon running the ball. The rest of the team combined for minus-22 yards. It will not be surprising to see him get even more carries when Maryland and its struggling defense arrives at Beaver Stadium Saturday.
When it comes to carrying the ball, Lynch is focusing on two areas of improvement.
I think it starts with being more patient and learning to take the two yards, he said. When the big play comes, make the big play.
What makes a good running back is the ability to break tackles and make people miss, Lynch said. That's definitely something I can improve on.
The end of the Ohio State game highlighted an area where Lynch needs the most improvement. On fourth down in double overtime, Buckeye defensive lineman Joey Bosa blasted in and sacked PSU QB Christian Hackenberg.
“Like most running backs, one of the areas he still needs to improve on is his pass protection. I think that’s going to be very, very important.”
Though it would have been too much to ask for any running back to stop someone with Bosa's size, speed and talent -- Lynch said, I'm not in position to pick up D-ends full-speed rushing, so next time I'm in that situation, I'll definitely cut him -- the back acknowledge that pass blocking has been and will continue to be vital to his development.
He called it a key are for all young running backs where they can improve.
Like most running backs, one of the areas he still needs to improve on is his pass protection, Lion coach James Franklin agreed. I think that's going to be very, very important. As big and strong as he is, he should be able to be dominant in that area.
I always watch the top guys, he said. If you want to be the best, you have to see the best.
He is officially one of the top guys at Penn State now. With Zwinak out of the mix, Belton is now the only running back who is older than Lynch. Walk-on Cole Chiappialle is the only other back playing, as true freshmen Mark Allen, Nick Scott and Johnathan Thomas are all redshirting.
In my head, I don't see myself as a young back because there are only three of us right now, Lynch said. So I have to see myself as a leader. Definitely I try to lead by example, by working hard, by doing the little things.
One of those little things is being able to go at a moment's notice.
Obviously Zach is out for the season, so my role will increase, Lynch said. I'm just gonna do whatever they tell me to do, prepare myself and be ready whenever my name is gonna be called.
Which is going to be a lot more, even if he did not want it to happen this way.
I think his role is going to continue to grow this year and in this game, Franklin said. Obviously not having Zach anymore, that's going to factor into it.