Without an established standout and with several players looking to break out, the Penn State running back room is going to look a little bit different this fall. Ricky Slade is the expected starter, but Journey Brown, Noah Cain, and Devyn Ford are all in the mix for playing time and expected to see the field in varying capacities.
The last time Penn State had a true running back rotation, John Donovan and Christian Hackenberg were guiding the Nittany Lions’ offense through the 2014 campaign.
Just one year later, freshman phenom Saquon Barkley would grab the starting job by the stranglehold just a few games into the season and begin his illustrious three-year collegiate career before giving way to long-time backup Miles Sanders in 2018. However, with Sanders' backup–Slade–only 45 carries deep into his career, he's not guaranteed the bell cow role that Sanders was.
With three of the scholarship running backs, and perhaps all four, set to get regular carries, how position coach Ja'Juan Seider decides to split up his group's carries is yet to be seen.
Slade, now the most experienced back in on the team, is expected to be the starter and receive the most carries. However, barring a breakout the likes of Barkley in 2015, don't expect to see him approach the 244 touches that Sanders racked up a season ago.
“I think a lot of that, too, was just depth,” Seider told reporters in April. “We were to the point at the middle of the season where Miles was by himself.”
“We had to slow down what we were doing, even getting him out in the swing routes and stuff, and lining him up in an empty (set). Well, that’s going to be more touches and more strain on his leg and lower parts. So we had to take care of him and kind of get him through the season.”
Assistant coaches often have a lot of input into which players are in the game at their position group. So, in order to get an idea of what the rotation might look this fall, let’s look at how Seider has divided playing time up across the past five years of his career amongst his top-three backs each season. Sure the responsibilities change staff-to-staff but this is one way of making an educated guess as to the varying load backs will carry.
2018 Penn State
- Miles Sanders: 220 rushes, 24 receptions with 1,413 all-purpose yards.
- Ricky Slade: 45 rushes, 1 reception, 269 all-purpose yards
- Mark Allen: 24 rushes, 4 receptions, 124 all-purpose yards.
Lead back: 76 percent of offensive touches amongst top-3 backs.
- Lamical Perine: 136 rushes, 10 receptions, 643 all-purpose yards
- Malik Davis: 79 rushes, 7 receptions, 584 all-purpose yards
- Mark Thompson: 58 rushes, 12 receptions, 376 all-purpose yards
Lead back: 48 percent of offensive touches amongst top-3 backs.
2016 West Virginia
- Justin Crawford: 163 rushes, 14 receptions, 1,252 all-purpose yards
- Rushel Shell: 113 rushes, 12 receptions, 614 all-purpose yards
- Kennedy McKoy: 73 rushes, 9 receptions, 536 all-purpose yards
Lead back: 46 percent of offensive touches amongst top-3 backs.
2015 West Virginia
- Wendell Smallwood: 238 rushes, 26 receptions, 1,679 all-purporse yards
- Rushel Shell: 161 rushes, 16 receptions, 809 all-purpose yards
- Ellijah Williams: 14 rushes, 5 receptions, 89 all-purpose yards
Lead back: 57 percent of offensive touches amongst top-3 backs.
2014 West Virginia
- Rushel Shell: 176 rushes, 21 receptions, 928 all-purpose yards
- Wendell Smallwood: 148 rushes, 31 receptions, 1,048 all-purpose yards
- Dreamius Smith: 80 rushes, 11 receptions, 492 all-purpose yards
Lead back: 42 percent of offensive touches amongst top-3 backs.
As you can see from some quick research, Seider has in no other case in recent times had one player shoulder as much of the load as Sanders did a season ago. So while Slade is widely expected to be the starter and take the highest percentage of carries, Seider’s history implies that the speedy sophomore should be in line for somewhere around half of the team's touches among the top three names on the depth chart.
How each running back’s skillsets complement each other is obviously going to play a factor in how they are used. Based off of what we’ve seen so far, Cain is more of a downhill, power runner in tight spaces than the other three. That could allow Cain to carve out a role in short-yardage situations while the rest share the remaining responsibilities. But when talking about players this talented, there's not much that one can do at a much higher level than the other.
Without being at practice every day, it’s impossible to see how everyone has been truly been performing and what the pecking order will be on opening day, but their teammates think there is a path to playing time for all four.
“The young guys coming in, Noah and Devyn are really putting on a show already, learning and learning quickly too,” linebacker Micah Parsons told reporters. “Then Ricky Slade obviously put up great numbers last year for the time he was in and I think Journey Brown is really going to have a chance to prove himself this year.”
In the end, no matter how the carries are eventually divided up, Penn State fans should be looking forward to what the Nittany Lion running game can offer this fall.