CHICAGO - Generally speaking, Bill Belton doesn't look amused.
That's his resting face, a "mean mug," as head coach James Franklin calls it. In public, the Nittany Lions' senior running back talks about his determination for the season ahead, matching the intensity of his words to the serious facial expressions.
Franklin knows better, though, as do the teammates that accompanied Belton to the Big Ten Football Media Days this week in the Second City. Considered one of the most respected members of Penn State's program, the straight-faced running back admits that the public persona doesn't necessarily match the genial nature he shares with teammates away from the spotlight.
"They know me," he said. "I'm not this. I'm not a straight faced guy all the time. That's what you all see, but I'm not that, at all."
This week in Chicago, Franklin offered his own version of a dentist pumping laughing gas onto a nervous patient.
"I constantly talk to him about smiling more because he's constantly mean mugging people, and I want him to smile and I want him to enjoy himself," Franklin said. Stopping his own response, Franklin leaned back in his chair to grab the New Jersey native's attention just a table away. The cheeky smile on Franklin's face, before even saying a word, prompted a broad grin to crack across Belton's face.
"Leave it on there!" Franklin shouted. "Leave it on your face a little longer!"
Maybe after the season is completed.
With just weeks separating Belton from the start of the Nittany Lions' 2014 campaign, the summer has so far been one perceived slight after another for the tailback. Using Twitter to call out the preseason prognosticators who kept him off their goofy "best running backs" lists this earlier this summer, the method has actually been one of motivation for what Belton hopes will be his best year as a Nittany Lion yet.
The fact that Franklin brought Belton to Chicago to begin with - a decision described as being senior-driven while looking to give an offensive, defensive and special teams player an opportunity to enjoy the unique experience of Big Ten Media Days - suggested a little psychology experiment from Penn State's head coach. Selected to represent the Nittany Lions with the respect of his coaches and teammates at his back, for instance, how could Belton not see the attention both internally and from the media as anything but an acknowledgement of his stature?
According to fellow representative Mike Hull, Belton's personality somehow finds a way to ignore it, he joked.
"Nothing is going to change for him. He's going to be like that for the rest of his life, I'm sure," Hull said. "He probably feels disrespected being out here in some way. He'll find a way. That's just how he is."
Looking around the packed ballroom of reporters, Big Ten coaches and his peers Tuesday morning, Belton held true to form. Indicating that his trip to Chicago and the attention gained as a team representative was a start, he said it's still not the vision he has for himself ultimately.
"I'm kind of right where I expected I'd be, but I'm not there yet. I'm not where I want to be yet," he said. "I'm trying to be on a national scale. I don't want to just be like, 'He's a good Big Ten running back.' When you hear Penn State football, I'm trying to hear 'Bill Belton, running back, is this that and that.' I'm trying to be on a national scale, so that's what I'm striving for."
Coming off a junior campaign in which he racked up 803 rushing yards and five touchdowns on 157 carries along with another 15 receptions, 158 yards and two scores through the passing game, Belton appears to be very much on the precipice. Named a Doak Walker Watch List-er just two weeks ago, annually awarded to the best running back in college football, Belton compared the nod to a "pat on the back."
"It's nice, but I didn't do anything yet," he said. "Preseason awards are like nothing."
Understanding the modus operandi Belton carries into his approach to the game, Franklin indicated that the attitude isn't necessarily a negative. In fact, he said, the accomplishments Belton has already secured have produced a real pride from the new head.
"He's really driven, he wants to really have a great year, and I think that does create a little bit of a chip on his shoulder and an edge to him. He's an awesome kid. I'm so proud of him, he's improved dramatically academically, he's on schedule to graduate in December, and he's really matured," Franklin said. "And I recruited Bill out of high school, so I've known Bill for a long time. It's not like I just figured this out the last six months. But that's been a big talk about coming here. I want these guys to enjoy themselves. I want them to let people get to know them. I want them to smile.
"That's not always kind of Bill's deal. So I'm proud of him and I think this is an opportunity for growth as well, this experience."