CHICAGO — Tacked to the wall in his apartment, Bill Belton has a single sheet of paper. It is, he says without hesitation, the first thing he sees every morning.
It’s a simple printout of an ESPN.com mailbag Q-and-A, where the author lists his top five running backs in the Big Ten for 2014.
Ameer Abdullah. Melvin Gordon. Venric Mark. Tevin Coleman. Jeremy Langford. For good measure it lists three more names “in the mix” at the bottom.
No Bill Belton.
At the bottom of the page, handwritten in Sharpie, is a message from new Penn State running backs coach Charles Huff.
Do you play in this league?
Huff may only be a few months into his job with the Nittany Lions, but he already knows how to motivate Belton, arguably the most talented runner in Penn State’s stable.
Entering his senior season, Belton is keenly aware of how he’s perceived on the national stage. Which is to say, he doesn’t receive a ton of attention one way or the other. After playing receiver as a true freshman in 2011, Belton has split carries each of the last two seasons, rotating primarily with Zach Zwinak.
That’s kept his numbers, and his profile, down a bit. Something that the printout reminds him of.
“It’s just telling me I’ve got a long way to go,” Belton said at Big Ten media days as one of three players representing the Lions. “You guys write about certain players in this conference. I want to be one of those players in the future that y’all write about.”
Nothing like the truth.
Belton watched one of his closest friends on the team, Allen Robinson, take advantage of his time at the forefront of Penn State’s offense. After shattering several school receiving records, Robinson left school a year early and was selected in the second round of the NFL draft by the Jacksonville Jaguars in May.
Belton said he still talks with Robinson often, having watched his friend get drafted while back home in New Jersey after the spring semester.
“Oh, he’s going to do big things for the Jags,” Belton said. “Most definitely.”
Just another bit of motivation for the Lions senior, who said he knows he has a lot of work to do to be considered in Robinson’s class as a pro prospect.
Coaches and teammates aren’t counting him out. Those who traveled with him to Chicago for the event said they’ve noticed a certain intensity in Belton during spring ball and summer workouts.
“Right now, he’s really hungry,” Lions coach James Franklin said. “Because he knows this is his shot. This is his opportunity.”
Franklin, who recruited Belton heavily while still coaching at Vanderbilt, said he had him pegged as a running back from the get-go, as opposed to Penn State and Pitt, who were both looking at him as a wideout.
Bill O’Brien agreed, switching Belton into the backfield during the former coach’s first training camp with the Lions, installing Belton as the starter after Silas Redd transferred.
A high ankle sprain in the opener stunted his progress and by season’s end, Belton was in the doghouse, rarely touching the ball. The following summer, the coaches had him focus on academics to make sure he remained eligible.
No such issues this offseason.
“Bill’s really stepped up,” said linebacker Mike Hull, a fellow senior. “He’s a leader on this team and you can just tell he wants to make an impact.
“In practice, he’s always been one of toughest guys to bring down. He’s elusive and he can make you look pretty bad with his cuts.”
There’s just one thing that Franklin would like to see more of from Belton.
“Is he smiling?” Franklin said Tuesday from an interview table adjacent to Belton’s.
Franklin, whose voice booms through even the most crowded of rooms, was easily heard by Belton, who couldn’t resist breaking out a rare grin.
“Leave it on your face a little longer!” Franklin laughed.
The running back did as he was ordered. For a little bit at least.
Soon it was back to business, and discussing what he needs to do to improve.
As for that printout, it’s not going anywhere just yet.
“I’ll take it down,” Belton said, “when I’m done playing football.”