There has been no shortage of great running backs to come out of Penn State over the years. Most recently there has been Saquon Barkley and Miles Sanders. A little bit longer ago there was Blair Thomas, Franco Harris, Lydell Mitchell, Larry Johnson, and John Cappelletti, to name a few. All of these backs, and the ones not mentioned, have paved the way for the current Penn State running back room. The Nittany Lions have returners Journey Brown, Noah Cain, and Devyn Ford. All three saw a lot of playing time a season ago. In addition, there is early enrollee Caziah Holmes and redshirt freshman Tank Smith.
The Penn State Running Back Room
With Ricky Slade transferring at the end of the 2019 season Brown became the likely running back to take over the starting role. Although, after Barkley departed for the NFL draft it has mainly been running back by committee for the Nittany Lions. Sanders was the starter in 2018 and had a break out year, but even he had supplemental help. In 2019 all four running backs shared time each game. Until Cain was injured against Michigan State it looked like a carousel of running backs game in and game out.
Heading into the 2020 season expect more of the same until maybe one back breaks away from the pack. While we wait for the season to hopefully start in the fall let’s take a look at what each back did a season ago.
The oldest in the running back room, Brown, looks to headline the group of young players. The redshirt junior from Meadville, PA is just shy of six feet tall and weighs in at 216 pounds. In 2019 Brown rushed for 890 yards on 129 attempts. Further, he accounted for 13 total touchdowns and 1,024 yards from scrimmage. Brown averaged for just under seven yards per carry in 2019.
Against Pitt on September 14, 2019, Brown had a career-long 85-yard run. It is the second-longest non-scoring run in Penn State history. This is just behind Penn State great Thomas. Brown also broke Barkley’s Penn State bowl rushing record with 202 rushing yards in the Cotton Bowl against Memphis. In addition, Brown averaged 12.6 yards per carry in the Cotton Bowl, breaking another Nittany Lion Curt Warner’s mark of 8.6 yards per carry in the 1980 Fiesta Bowl. Brown ended the 2019 season on a high, which is something he hopes to continue in 2020.
The next back in the Penn State running back room is Cain. The true sophomore had a break-out season before his injury against Michigan State. Cain played in 10 games in 2019, rushed for 443 yards, and eight touchdowns. At one point fans were calling for Cain to be the lead back in 2019. Coach Franklin was cautious with the breakout freshman for the remainder of the season, so fans are excited to see what he will do in his sophomore campaign. Cain is up to 223 pounds and stands at five feet ten inches.
In 2019 Cain set a Penn State freshman rushing touchdown record with eight. He passed both Barkley and D.J. Dozier who both sit at seven. The IMG Academy product ended the 2019 season with two touchdowns in the Cotton Bowl against Memphis. Finally, Cain had back-to-back 100-yard rushing games against Purdue and Iowa. The first freshman running back to do so since Barkley in 2015. It will be nice to see him healthy in 2020.
As a true freshman in 2019 Ford appeared in 12 games for the Nittany Lions. He rushed for 294 yards and scored three touchdowns. Ford didn’t let Brown and Cain break records without getting in on the fun. The Stafford, VA product became the first Penn State freshman to rush for 100 yards in a season opener since Warner did it back in 1979 against Rutgers. He capped his freshman season off with a touchdown run in the second quarter against Memphis in the Cotton Bowl. It will be fun to watch Ford in year two as a Nittany Lion when the 2020 season starts.
While Brown, Cain, and Ford are the likely rotators in the running back position when football resumes, there are several more backs in the room. Holmes is an early enrollee weighing in at 208 pounds from Titusville, Florida. As a Junior in 2018, Holmes accounted for over 1,500 yards from scrimmage and scored 18 touchdowns. He kept that going into 2019 scoring 20 total touchdowns, 19 rushing and one receiving. Another incoming freshman is Keyvone Lee. Coming out of high school Lee is seen as being a shifty back with good vision in open space. With an already loaded backfield, it will be interesting to see if Lee follows Cain and Ford and contributes immediately, or redshirts to start his career.
Finally, there is Smith. Fans caught their first real glimpse on the Blue-White depth chart and immediately were drawn to “Tank”. Smith is a five-foot seven-inch 220-pound redshirt freshman out of Pittsburgh, PA. Smith is in a loaded running back room, but fans are hoping he gets the nod just to hear his name announced.
Hopefully, we will see these running backs in a few months taking the field in blue and white. There is a lot of talent at the position that could really benefit quarterback Sean Clifford and the offense. The ability to get these backs in the open field is key to a successful Penn State offense.