UNIVERSITY PARK - It was a day full of change for Penn State's annual end-of-spring-practice scrimmage, the Blue-White Game.
Bill O'Brien made his Nittany Lion on-field coaching debut, and there was a new scoring system that really allowed the team's more aggressive defensive approach to stand front and center.
There was perhaps no bigger change, though, than those of direction made by converted freshman receiver Bill Belton.
Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski
Ex-receiver Bill Belton rushed for 50 yards.
With Belton's sudden stops, starts, moves and darts, the complexion of Penn State's running back depth behind Silas Redd changed completely before a crowd of approximately 60,000 who got in and out of Beaver Stadium before the heavier rains came late Saturday afternoon. Belton rushed for 50 yards and a touchdown on an entertaining seven carries, although it wasn't enough for the White in a 77-65 loss to the defense.
"Billy made some great plays. He's a great player. He's got a ton of talent,'' said Michael Zordich, Penn State's returning fullback. "He's an effortless athlete. He's been working all summer on small things. I think he has the ability to add some serious, serious weaponry to our arsenal.''
Belton helped stake the White to a 26-12 lead in the first quarter when he cut back through a nice hole for a 7-yard touchdown run, but his best was still to come. In the second quarter, he found a big hold on the kickoff and might have taken it the distance had the play not been ruled dead by scrimmage rules. Then he caught an 11-yard pass from Rob Belton and followed that up by slipping through a small crease for an 11-yard run on the next two plays.
Early in the second half, he was at it again, getting quickly to the corner, then breaking back and straight upfield for 20 yards two plays before a beautiful hesitation move gave him a gap to run for 8 more.
"Bill's going to be a big-time player. There's no doubt about that,'' honorable mention all-Big Ten defensive tackle Jordan Hill said. "His vision is something you don't see from a lot of running backs. It's crazy to see some of the cuts he makes.''
Belton was a highly recruited wide receiver coming out of high school, but he actually was a dual-threat quarterback there. After Joe Paterno's firing last fall, Tom Bradley's Penn State coaching staff used Belton as a wildcat quarterback, where he rushed for 65 yards and had a 5.0 per-carry average, so O'Brien's staff took a look at him and put him at running back.
"He's picked it up pretty well. He's got good instincts,'' O'Brien said. "He's had a good spring.''
With the graduations of Stephfon Green and Brandon Beachum, the Lions are almost completely unproven behind Redd. The Lions look more secure at the position after Saturday, though, because not only did Belton perform well, but so did Zach Zwinak, the 226-pound redshirt freshman who is battling back from injury after being the top-rated fullback prospect in the country a couple of years ago. Zwinak bulled his way for a workmanlike 37 yards on eight carries, carrying a defender the final 2 yards into the end zone on the game's first touchdown, an 8-yard run.
"Bill's a great running back, and so is Zach. They both showed off today,'' said Redd, who rushed for 1,241 yards in 2011 but got an early afternoon off after carrying the ball three times for 12 yards in the game's opening series. "It was really a day for them to show what they can do, and I think they did a good job with that.''
While the question at running back seems to have been answered, the same cannot be said for quarterback. Matt McGloin, Rob Bolden and Paul Jones all finished completing 50 percent or fewer of their passes and were intercepted five times. The quarterback who actually had the best day statistically was former Central Cambria High School walk-on Shane McGregor, who completed all four of his passes for 47 yards and engineered the first touchdown drive.
The Blue-White Game often is the vehicle for young players like Belton to really be introduced to Nittany Lion fans or for players who likely aren't going to see much if any time in a regular game to have their moment in the sun and possibly give the coaches a chance to think about them a little harder. For instance, walk-on Jesse Della Valle got extra playing time in a depleted secondary and came up with an interception of McGloin that he returned 35 yards and an emphatic pass break-up with a big hit. Also, freshman Devin Pryor, a military child from California by way of England, ran a kickoff all the way back - it was returned to a spot where he was presumably touched down - and later picked off a pass.
Of the former, 6-foot-5 Donovan Smith, who made the two-deep last year at tackle as a true freshman, got his first real chance to play before a large crowd, although it figures to be far from his last.
"They didn't want to burn my redshirt,'' Smith said. "I went to scout team after the Ohio State game. You try blocking Devon Still. That helped me, though.''
Another former blue-chip recruit, defensive end C.J. Olaniyan, was a big reason the Blue team prevailed. Olaniyan made three sacks, which was worth 12 points in the game's special scoring system.
"It was weird seeing that many points, but it was nice to be able to put points on the board,'' Olaniyan said. "We've been preaching from day one to play a role. I felt like I did a good job playing my role out there.''
"I wanted to reward the defense for good plays. Obviously, they made a lot of good plays,'' O'Brien, who coached the offense, said. "The defense is probably ahead of the offense right now. That's to be expected.''