Penn State running back Saquon Barkley was one of the top breakout stars from last season, rushing for 1,076 yards and seven touchdowns in his first year with the Nittany Lions. However, with Barkley breaking into the national limelight, that left starter-turned-backup Akeel Lynch in a bind.
Lynch’s relegation to No. 2 cut his production by almost two-thirds, from 678 yards in 2014, to 282 in 2105. With Barkley being hyped as the best running back in the Big Ten for this upcoming season, Lynch knew transferring was necessary if he wanted playing time — and playing time he’ll get in the backfield for Brian Polian’s Nevada Wolfpack.
The 22-year old Lynch is immediately eligible as a graduate transfer. His addition gives Nevada a formidable 1-2 punch in a Mountain West Conference marked with prolific rushing offenses, and some of the best running backs in the nation.
The Nevada combination of Lynch and junior James Butler gives the Pack a duo to keep pace with the option offenses at Air Force and New Mexico, and the star power of Boise State’s Jeremy McNichols and San Diego State’s Donnel Pumphrey.
Last season, Butler was for the Pack, rushing for 1,342 yards — 11th most yards in any single season in Nevada history — and he scored 10 touchdowns as the primary ball-carrier. He’ll continue to see carries in 2016, but will share the load with the newcomer Lynch.
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— PFF College Football (@PFF_College) August 30, 2016
“I think [Butler] knows he can be a really good player at this level,” Polian told the Reno Gazette-Journal. “He’s playing with confidence. He’s practicing with confidence right now. He’s doing a really good job in the offseason program. So there’s no reason to believe that he wouldn’t take another big step forward.”
The majority of Butler’s yards — 774 — were gained in the latter half of last season, a sign of his durability.
Now, with Lynch, Nevada a back that is basically the same mold as Butler. Both weigh in at 201 pounds, using their bowling-ball size to power through holes.
“They’re bought powerful guys,” Polian said. “I always say ‘James isn’t going to run away from anybody,’ but he does. They’re both over 210 pounds. They’re both big, solid backs. You don’t look at one and say, ‘He’s a change of pace.’ They’re similar. If we get to Nov. 1 and if one guy hasn’t taken 85-percent of the carries that’s better for us because everybody will be much better off physically.”
Lynch has proven he has the talent to be a reliable 1-B option for Nevada behind Butler. In a Nevada offense more conducive to multi-back usage, the former New York State Gatorade Player of the Year will get his opportunity to shine, even if he’s not the primary option.
Since the Wolfpack now potentially have a formidable duo out of the backfield, that should help ease the transition to a new offense in 2016.
Nevada is bringing in first-year offensive coordinator Tim Cramsey, a branch off the Chip Kelly coaching tree.
Cramsey is implementing a more wide-open offensive scheme in Reno after Polian tinkered with different looks in the years following Chris Ault’s retirement. His offense is more motion-heavy that has players moving around throughout every formation.
Although Cramsey’s offense is more productive in the passing game, it will still focus on utilizing the Wolfpack’s two athletic backs. And with such a gifted backfield, the Wolfpacks’ quarterback Tyler Stewart can ease into Cramsey’s new offensive system.
In league that is known for its strong running offenses, Nevada’s 1-2 punch could form the Wolfpack into a Mountain West contender later in the season.