Belton has become Penn State's go-to halfback
Shortly after Bill O'Brien took the job as Penn State's coach in January 2012, he conducted what he called "crack-of-dawn workouts" so he could judge the players he inherited from Joe Paterno's final team in person rather than having to watch hours of film.
It wasn't long before Bill Belton caught his eye.
"He was 5-foot-11, maybe 185-190 pounds, a thick-looking guy," O'Brien recalled. "I said, 'What position was he?' They said he was a slot receiver and a Wildcat quarterback. I said, 'Well, I think looking at our running back situation, why don't we try him at running back?' That's when we moved him."
The move has paid off for the Nittany Lions the last few weeks. Making his second start of 2013 last Saturday, Belton rushed for 201 yards on 36 carries in his team's overtime win over Illinois.
"It's very rewarding," Belton said the other day, "but it's not over yet. It's basically just beginning and there's still a lot more football left so I have to stay focused on that."
Belton, now a 205-pound junior, is taking nothing for granted. He won't forget the bumpy road he traveled to get here after an injury, some lost confidence, and academic issues threatened to limit his playing time.
Belton was no stranger to carrying the football in high school. He had accumulated 2,195 rushing yards in his last two seasons as quarterback at Winslow Township in South Jersey. As a freshman, he helped lead the Nittany Lions to a win over Ohio State as a Wildcat quarterback.
"When they said that I could help the team, I was all for it," Belton said of the move. "There were no questions asked or anything like that."
However, the transition was not a smooth one. After being named the starter in the preseason last year, he suffered a high ankle sprain in the opener. His playing time later diminished to where he carried the ball once in the Lions' final four games.
After getting his grades up in summer school, Belton began this season slowly, with just 43 carries in the first five games compared with 84 for Zach Zwinak, a 1,000-yard rusher in 2012.
But Zwinak's fumble on Penn State's first play of the second half against Michigan opened the door for Belton and he has made the most of it. In his last three games, he has rushed 85 times for 384 yards.
Perhaps no one was happier for Belton than O'Brien, who has been one of his biggest supporters. The coach has talked frequently with Belton and said the player has "grown up a lot on the field and off the field."
"He wasn't doing very well in the classroom when I got here and he's doing better there," O'Brien said. "It's a work in progress for him academically, but he works hard at it. Obviously he's playing well on the field. So it makes you feel good when good kids do well."
Belton appreciates the support.
"It's a great feeling when your head coach has confidence in you, and you know that he really cares about you," he said. "I'd go to war for him any day."
Belton ranks seventh in Big Ten rushing with 668 yards, or 83.5 yards per game. But he is staying "focused on the things that I need to focus on," such as patience with the ball and pass protection.
With Zwinak struggling with his confidence and redshirt freshman Akeel Lynch nursing a sprained knee ligament, Belton is likely to get most of the work Saturday at Minnesota. His upsurge has been a result of staying positive.
"When things hit the wall, I never doubted myself," Belton said. "I always had belief in myself. My parents always told me to keep that about me and I did, so everything worked out."
Nittany notes. Guard John Urschel and linebacker Ben Kline were selected to the academic all-district football team selected by the College Sports Information Directors of America.