Coming into the 2019 season, no one was quite sure what to expect from the Penn State running backs. In fact, the only thing that seemed to be truly settled was that Ricky Slade would lead the group. Little did we know that Journey Brown, he of eight career carries before 2019 and the lowest recruiting ranking of the scholarship backs, would end up being the one with all of the NFL Draft hype one year later.
Brown took over control of the room around the midseason point and never looked back, finishing the season with 890 yards on the ground on a sterling 6.9 yards per carry. He also developed an affinity for the end zone, finding pay dirt 13 times in 2019. He wasn't alone though, as the Nittany Lions were able to get immediate contributions from true freshmen Noah Cain (443 yards, 5.3 ypc) and Devyn Ford (294 yards, 5.7 ypc). Cain, in particular, carved out his role as the late-game hammer and put his full skill set on display in finishing off Iowa with a long touchdown drive.
No. 4 Journey Brown (Sr./Jr., 5'11, 215 lbs)
There are far fewer questions about the running back room in 2020 as Journey Brown is the unquestioned leader of the group. The former Meadville star enters the season projected to be one of the top backs in the entire country, and if he's able to continue his momentum from the tail end of the 2019 season he could end up hearing his name called in the first round of the NFL Draft.
Brown showed up in Happy Valley as a little-known recruit with elite-level speed. Now, he has transformed into a complete back whose power and elusiveness might even be more impressive than his straight-line speed – and that's saying something. With an experienced and powerful offensive line in front of him, quality depth behind him to keep him fresh, and a savvy and sneaky athletic quarterback next to him, Brown is set up for a massive 2020 season.
No. 21 Noah Cain (So./So., 5'10, 228 lbs.)
No. 28 Devyn Ford (So./So., 5'11, 192 lbs.)
Neither Cain nor Ford is ready to unseat Brown as the starter, but that doesn't mean that there isn't a role for each guy to play in 2020. As mentioned above, Cain found his niche among this group almost immediately with his punishing and smooth running style. He's the perfect player to put on the field when you need to chew clock and methodically move down the field. He always falls forward, rarely loses yardage, and punishes every defender he comes into contact with. He's also more than capable of making a defender miss in space too.
Ford doesn't have the power of Cain or the speed of Brown but is an incredibly well-rounded back, especially for his age. His 2020 role will be that of a change-of-pace option, but not one that defenses can afford to take lightly. With a year of experience at the college level under his belt, don't be surprised to see him eclipse the 300 rushing yard mark, even as the third (or fourth, depending on how much Clifford runs in the new offense) option.
No. 26 Caziah Holmes (Fr./Fr., 5'11, 215 lbs.)
No. 24 Keyvone Lee (Fr./Fr., 6'0, 220 lbs.)
No. 38 Tank Smith, Jr. (So./Fr., 5’7, 214 lbs.)
No. 30 Joseph Bruno (Fr./Fr., 6'0, 200 lbs.)
The big names to watch here are Holmes and Lee, though Tank Smith has understandably already started forming a cult following. Lee is the closest thing to a "goal line back" the room has and his size and strength could earn him some early playing time when a tough yard or two is needed. Based on early reports, though, Holmes looks like he could be the next superstar. He will likely only see a few snaps here and there in 2020, but his donning of the No. 26 jersey could be a sign of what's to come for the Florida native.