STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Bill Belton woke up Sunday morning and, for once, didn't feel sore.
After a three-week absence, he felt comfortable. He didn't limp, didn't wince and was finally able to push that first game toward the back of his mind.
"During those three weeks, I was constantly replaying that first game in my head and looking for things to improve on," he said Tuesday afternoon. "That was my motivation."
Belton fell to the turf in the third quarter of the opener, clutched his left ankle, and later watched a golf cart shuttle him to the locker room. The sophomore tailback insisted that scene didn't replay over in his mind at nighttime; it was then he turned toward his teammates and family for strength.
For three weeks, he didn't speak to the media. He tweeted Bible verses on overcoming obstacles, such as Luke 8:48. ("Then he said to her, 'Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace.' ") And his mother, Carmalena, said last week she wasn't sure when her son would return -- but that he was working hard.
"I wanted to get back, so I did anything to get me back," said Belton, who remains the unquestioned starter after rushing for 65 yards against Illinois.
Now that he's returned, his teammates have said he's the same tailback, the same speedy, sure-handed athlete who adds another layer to this complicated offense. But Belton isn't coming back to the same team.
Before the opener, Bill O'Brien addressed a circle of reporters and told them Belton would be the main back, a sophomore who could carry the ball 20-25 times a contest. Belton relished that role, but O'Brien said Tuesday that's no longer the case.
With a revolving carousel of runners this season, the coaching staff has watched a few break out. Zach Zwinak, formerly the team's last option at tailback, out-rushed Belton against Illinois for 100 yards on 19 carries. Michael Zordich and Derek Day have also taken cracks at starting.
"I'd say it's more 12-15 carries a game," O'Brien said. "We ran the ball 52 times in the Illinois game, and nobody's really going to carry 52 times for us. Things change as the season goes on."
A soft-spoken Belton said the new team dynamic didn't bother him. He's a believer in everything-happens-for-a-reason, and he seemed content to finally be practicing with his teammates instead of working with the trainers.
"It's not frustrating. We're a team, and different backs can do different things," he said. "We all complement each other. I wouldn't say it's frustrating."
Belton says he's 100 percent now, even if he does sport taped ankles in practice. He called Northwestern a must-win and said he didn't care if he had five carries or 50 carries -- as long as the Nittany Lions added another mark in the 'W' column.
"As long as we get a team win, we're perfectly all right with that," he added.