This edition will be no different.
It's rare throughout the storied history of Nittany Lion football that this unit has underperformed. The names that have "toted the rock" in Blue and White are those of legends. With an expected improvement up front, the trickle-down effect may not have any more impact than it does on this particular group: The Running Backs.
Last year's starters are gone and they both left on a low note. That being said, no one who bleeds Blue and White will ever lose that memory of Bill Belton, arms raised, as he ended the 4 overtime thriller over Michigan in 2013. Or that of Zack Zwinack running over Badgers like a madman on our way to a season ending victory over 24pt. favored Wisconsin in 2012.
At a time when Penn State was left for dead, those two rose to the occasion many times and will always have a spot in our Nittany Lion hearts.
THE BIG MAPLE ERA
Returning to the lineup in 2015 is junior Akeel Lynch, last season's top rusher, despite starting the year as the third string back. A good majority of us would have preferred seeing Big Maple, a nod to his Canadian roots, on the field more in 2014. In hindsight, I am of the opinion that it was a wise decision to save Lynch from some of the punishment the running game took a year ago.
The Toronto native, who came to Happy Valley from the Buffalo, N.Y. area, has bided his time with patience. Lynch heads into this season with some lofty expectations. His combination of speed and power takes us back to a more typical running back that we are all used to seeing.
The one knock against Lynch is his ability to pass block. A reason, as explained by Head Coach James Franklin, that Lynch did not see the field as much as some would have liked. If he is going to take his game to the next level, as expected, he must improve in this area.
A nice side note to the beginning of the Big Maple Era- this is also the beginning of the end for another. The famed #22 worn by 1973 Heisman Trophy winner, John Cappelletti, was retired last season at halftime of the Eastern Michigan game. With Cappy's blessing, Lynch was allowed to keep the number he's had since he came to Penn State in 2012. The end of both eras will end with his graduation in 2016.
THE REDSHIRTS ARE COMING, THE REDSHIRTS ARE COMING...
The battle for backup duty behind Akeel Lynch will begin with three redshirt freshmen. Nick Scott, out of Fairfax, Virginia, showed off his skills in April's Blue/White Game when he broke loose for a highlight worthy 53 yard touchdown against the first team defense.
Joining him in April was Mark Allen, from the DMV area of Maryland. Although he did not score, Allen displayed a nice combination of speed and power that should complement Lynch well in 2015.
Johnathan Thomas, of Peabody, Mass., sat out the Blue/White game with a minor hamstring injury, but gained wide praise throughout spring practice as a punishing runner. Many have used the term "under the radar" in regards to what Thomas brings to the table.
All three came to Penn State as 3-star backs, and should provide good depth, if not stiff competition.
A name that has been generating a ton of buzz is that of incoming freshman, Saquan Barkley. The winner of Mr. Pennsylvania 2014, from Whitehall, PA, Barkley has turned heads from the moment he stepped on campus in June, both in the weight room and with his maturity.
The 2014 runner-up for Mr. PA, was Bishop McDevitt’s (Harrisburg) Andre Robinson, another major addition to the Penn State class of 2015. Robinson finished his high school career holding most of the records for a school with a long and storied tradition of football.
Both Barkley and Robinson are expected to make an early push for playing time. More importantly, they helped solidify Coach Franklin's "Dominate the State" mantra by committing early on in his tenure at Happy Valley.
Akeel Lynch has patiently waited his turn to be the feature back. His time is now, and I expect that patience to pay immediate dividends. He has all the attributes that we have all come to expect out of a Penn State running back. Size, speed, and character. In my opinion, the #22 is destined to be retired on a high note.
Behind him, and closer than most think, is an entire stable of young Lions eager to make their mark. The battle for playing time will be one of the most fun to watch as Penn State begins practice on Wednesday, August 5th.
Much like the O-Line, those first 6 games will prove crucial to the development of a renewed commitment to the run game. I fully expect that by the time we get to the Ohio State game in Columbus, our backs will be running with confidence. If that proves true, those Buckeyes, and the rest of the Big Ten, better watch out!