Reassessing the Penn State Running Back Room

By Nick Polak on October 20, 2020 at 8:36 am
Oct 5, 2019; University Park, PA, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions running back Noah Cain (21) runs the ball against the Purdue Boilermakers during the fourth quarter at Beaver Stadium.
John Jones-USA TODAY Sports

With the devastating news that Journey Brown could reportedly miss the entire 2020 football season, Penn State will be forced to find production elsewhere at the running back position.

It's a tough blow for Brown, who looked primed for a monster 2020 season and seemed like he was ready to enter his name into the conversation as one of the best running backs in college football. It was also set to be a massively important season for his NFL stock. Brown dominated once he took over as the team's workhorse (7.6 yards per carry over the final five games of the season), and while the NFL does tend to put great value in players who haven't been overused at the college level, more tape of what he can do would have been helpful. Brown is clearly dealing with something serious, and if sitting the season out in order to get and remain healthy is what needs to happen, it's the right decision.

Still, Brown or no Brown, Penn State is set to open its season this Saturday against Indiana. While it's likely that this isn't news to the team, being without last year's Cotton Bowl Offensive MVP will require a recalibration of sorts in the backfield. Let's take a quick look at who Sean Clifford will be handing the ball off to.

Noah Cain (So./So.)

One of the cult heroes from 2019, Cain quickly gained favor with fans of all ages thanks to his punishing running style. Despite missing time later in the season due to injury, the freshman quickly worked his way into the rotation and became someone the coaching staff truly trusted. This was never more evident than when they turned to him to close out the Iowa game with an extended, clock-crewing drive.

Still, Cain is more than just a grind-it-out, short-yardage back. The former four-star was one of the best backs in his class because along with that ability to get the tough yards, he's plenty capable of breaking off a big play as well. The smart money is on Cain being the first one to take a handoff in 2020.

Devyn Ford (So./So.)

If Cain was the cult hero of the room in 2019, Ford was the unsung hero. The numbers weren't necessarily eye-popping on the surface (294 rushing yards, 3 touchdowns), but he was the second most efficient back on the roster at 5.7 yards per carry (Cain was 5.3) and thanks to his all-around skill set was able to be inserted into the game whenever needed, regardless of the situation.

Since his recruiting days, Ford has profiled as someone that Penn State can use in a variety of ways. He has the speed to get to the edge, vision to find holes in the middle, and the pass-catching chops to be a reliable weapon out of the backfield. He could have easily redshirted a year ago given the depth in front of him (including the now transferred Ricky Slade) but earned his playing time. Cain may take the first snap of the season, but it will likely be a co-starter situation between these two.

It may take until week two for that partnership to begin, however, as we still don't have word on how James Franklin is handling the minor drug charges levied against Ford, Sal Wormley (OL), and Caedan Wallace (OL) earlier this year. The case has since been adjudicated and they were all set to have their records cleared following community service. Still, it's possible that Franklin has suspensions lined up.

Keyvone Lee (Fr./Fr.)

Lee and fellow freshman Caziah Holmes were both likely in-line to play this fall anyway, given the free year of eligibility thanks to COVID-19, but Brown's absence puts both of them on track to see significant time. It's possible that Cain or Ford (or both) takes the next step forward and starts to steal a larger share of carries over time, but Lee's size and ability to churn out tough yards should mean he has a role no matter what.

As mentioned, Cain is capable of winning at the line of scrimmage, as well, but Lee profiles to be extremely effective in that role and has since high school. In goal-to-go situations or 4th-and-1-type situations, Lee will always be hard to stop. That's not to say that his only skill is diving forward, far from it. But as a true freshman, he has a clear role to play within this unit, and without Brown, that role will be even more important in 2020.

Caziah Holmes (Fr./Fr.)

Cain is the toughest-to-bring-down back on the roster. Ford is the most well-rounded. Lee is the biggest and could end up the strongest. But Holmes looks to have "most-exciting" locked up.

The comparisons started flowing the moment he chose to wear No. 26, but then he did this...

That's not to say that one hurdle in a practice drill means that Holmes is the second coming of Saquon Barkley, but it's hard not to be excited about the former four-star recruit. His top-level speed and elite elusiveness will be torture on Big Ten defenders for years to come, but how much will we see him in 2020? With Brown out, Holmes becomes one of the front-runners at kick returner, so he'll be on the field one way or another. But he'll get his chance at running back, as well. Franklin has shown over the years that he and his staff are more than happy to give anyone on the roster their shot, and running back has been the best example. From Barkley as a true freshman to Brown a year ago (remember when he was the fourth-string back?), they're not afraid to give their players a chance to shine. And for someone as talented as Holmes, all it could take is one play to kickstart his Penn State career. Just like the last No. 26.

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