A year makes all of the difference. A season ago, Akeel Lynch was the youngest running back on the depth chart.
Suddenly, now, he’s the paterfamilias.
Lynch is the only bona fide returning running back Penn State has in 2015. The Toronto native leads a fleet of highly talented, completely untested running backs. For once in his career, he enters the season with a spotlight shined as him as the Penn State’s go-to back.
“It definitely feels good to be ‘The Guy,’ but I still have to earn it,” Lynch said. “I know just because I’ve been here for so long and through the dark times, I don’t want to feel like I’m entitled to anything. I think that’s when some people start to lose their edge. I feel like I’m still behind these guys chasing.”
A year ago, Lynch waited his turn and didn’t completely earn a start until the Maryland game in November. Despite the gradual start to his regular playing time, the 5-foot-11, 222-pounder led the team in rushes, yards, and yards per carry. He picked up 676 yards – 4.6 per rush – for four touchdowns.
His breakout performances were back-to-back 130-plus yard running games against Temple and Illinois. A 35-yard run to set up a tying touchdown proved to be one of the turning points during Penn State’s Pinstripe Bowl victory over Boston College.
Nittany Lions coach James Franklin couldn’t nail down “one specific special trait” of Lynch’s. Instead he complimented his all-around skill set for a back that sits somewhere between ‘undersized’ and ‘huge.’
“(Lynch has) the strength and power to break tackles,” he said. “He’s got the ability to make people miss and catch out of the backfield, which we’d like for him to have a bigger role in those things for this year. And he does all those things well, and guys that do a lot of things well, it usually continues to translate and grow.
“I’ve just found that the guys that can do one or two things really well, those guys aren’t going to be as consistent as you want them to be.”
To prepare for his newfound role, Lynch said focused on three things in the offseason. First, he watches Pittsburgh Steelers star Le’Veon Bell in the offseason as a running back whose game he attempts to imitate.
Pass-blocking has been a particular point of emphasis during spring season and camp. Because of his stature and the more reps that will surely come his way this season, Lynch is focused on ensuring he is in tip-top shape to curb further injury.
“This offseason has been a lot of taking care of my body, making sure everything is right, any tweaks or bumps or bruises,” Lynch said. “I need to take care of my body. I’m around 220, 222. I’m not going to get much bigger, so I could definitely prevent myself from getting hurt.”
His protégés are a crop of impressive freshmen eager at a chance to become the next Curt Warner or D.J. Dozier. Running backs coach Charles Huff highlighted that each running back on the depth chart “adds something a little bit different which gives him his own advantage.”
Neither Mark Allen (“smaller shifty guy”), Nick Scott (“power and strength”), Johnathan Thomas (“tough runner”), Saquon Barkley (“athletic”), nor Andre Robinson (“above-the-chains type”) have a single carry in college.
Allen, Scott and Thomas all redshirted in 2014, their first year on campus. Though Thomas’ name was mentioned most out of that group last fall, he was limited during spring ball this year, allowing Scott to make a bigger impression. Likewise, Franklin singled out Allen for praise during training camp.
Barkley, the highest-rated recruit the Lions signed in February, has also turned heads in camp and has a good shot to see the field right away.
But they all need guidance. And Lynch is there to help.
The talk surrounding him in camp was how integral Lynch, nicknamed “Stepfather” by wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton, was to providing experience and guidance to the group. Knowing he has five teenagers behind him on the depth chart, Lynch said, made him an inadvertent leader that must “bring these guys along with me.”
His head coach couldn’t be more appreciative for the work he’s setting for the future of the program.
“I’d love,” Franklin said, “for him from day one until the end of the season to make it clearly obvious that we’ve got one big time back that we’re going to be able to hang our hat on while we’re developing those other guys.”
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