What Noah Cain's Emergence Means For the Running Back Room

By Matthew Filipovits on April 16, 2019 at 8:39 am
Apr 13, 2019; University Park, PA, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions running back Noah Cain (21) celebrates with teammates after scoring a touchdown during the second quarter of the Blue White spring game at Beaver Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports
© Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

For only the second time in the Franklin era, the Nittany Lions have some questions at running back. It seems as if Ricky Slade will be the primary guy in 2019, as he showed a lot of promise as a true freshman. Journey Brown appears to be giving Slade all he can handle, meaning that we could see a lot more two-back sets, and a lot more rotation than we've seen over the past few seasons. No matter what happened on Saturday, that probably would not have changed.

But then, Noah Cain put together one of the best Blue-White game performances we've ever seen out of an early enrollee. Not only did Cain look like the best freshman out there, he at times was the flat out best player. In one seemingly meaningless scrimmage, Cain threw his name into the race and made one thing very clear: He belongs on the field in 2019.

In the past a lot of the spring game stars have been walk-ons, who were never really threats to compete for starting jobs, Cain's situation is very different. This is not a situation where the game is just a great opportunity for the guy to play in Beaver Stadium. This was Cain's first audition for a significant role, and he passed with flying colors.

The Louisiana native led the way on the ground with 12 rushes for 45 yards and one touchdown while splitting duties for both teams. Eight of those carries and 41 of those yards came while he was on the White team, meaning he was running into the teeth of the first-team defense, behind the second team offensive line. Spring game or not, averaging over five yards per carry against one of the best defenses in the country, in your first collegiate action no less, is nothing to scoff at. 

"He was decisive. He stuck his foot in the ground and he got downhill," James Franklin said after the game. "A lot of times his runs aren't overly sexy, but he's just breaking tackles and falling forward, and he did a lot of that with the second O-line against the (first-team) D."

This is just a very mature run for a true freshman. He never looks like he's hesitating for a second, he just goes for what the defense is giving him. It's easy for a guy as talented as Cain to try to dance around like they were able to do in high school, but if this is any indication of what's to come, that won't be a problem. 

It wasn't just running the ball where Cain excelled. He caught two passes for 13 yards and one very impressive touchdown.

Here, Cain does a great job of recovering after a bobbled pass. He never loses his wits and is able to make five-star linebacker Brandon Smith miss with a great cutback, while also generating enough power to be able to truck through an arm tackle and find the endzone. The most impressive part of all this may be how effortless he makes it look.

There is still a ton of time between now and the start of the season, and anything can happen. Even if Slade and Brown hold onto their spots at the top two running backs, Noah Cain will see the field. He has proven to be talented enough and the Nittany Lions know they'll need some more horses if they want to make another playoff run. For all their skillsets, neither Slade nor Brown have the body type of workhorse kind of back. Adding Cain to the mix will keep each back fresh while implementing three very different skill sets. As mentioned above, nothing is set in stone, but it looks like Ja'Juan Seider could be responsible for a three-headed monster come late August. 

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