Penn State’s running backs room is five players strong — two juniors, two sophomores, and a fifth-year transfer, all of whom were four-star talents coming out of high school.
But the Nittany Lions play just one at a time in the backfield, leaving running backs coach Ja’Juan Seider with a dilemma: How do you keep everyone happy, and away from the NCAA transfer portal? Seider chooses to look at the positive.
“I’m going to go with luxury,” Seider said at Penn State’s media day earlier this month. “The dilemma is when you don’t have the depth and one of those guys goes down. Who do you go to? I always tell them, you get what you earn. If a guy is clearly better than everybody else, he’s going to be the guy. If two guys are close, we’ve gotta play them. If there’s another one, we’ve gotta play him.
“Remember 2019? We played four running backs. They all deserved to play. To me, that was the hardest job. Usually you can scheme this play or this series, but that was hard. By the grace of God, the kids made it work. This could be just as hard. I think it’s harder.”
Noah Cain and Devyn Ford, two freshmen backs on the 2019 team led by honorable mention All-Big Ten Journey Brown, are the veterans in 2021. Cain carried three times on the first series of last season’s opener at Indiana before suffering a season-ending injury to his left foot. Ford played in six games, but the Lions went more with freshman Keyvone Lee late in the year.
The 6-foot, 239-pound Lee ran for 345 of his team-leading 438 yards over the final four games, all victories, and averaged 86 yards per contest. The other two backs are sophomore Caziah Holmes and fifth-year senior John Lovett, a graduate transfer who rushed for 1,803 yards at Baylor.
Penn State head coach James Franklin loves the strength and depth at the position. He said he and Seider are “big believers” that three backs will play.
“The day of the featured backs in college football are gone,” Franklin said last week. “We want to play three backs. I think it’s hard to play four. You better have a fourth ready because one of those three will get dinged up. I do think we have four backs we can play with. We’re trying to figure out who the top three will be.”
Franklin said “a couple of live scrimmages” will help determine those who will get playing time.
The 5-10, 218-pound Cain distinguished himself in 2019 with a pair of 100-yard games vs. Purdue and at Iowa, with the bulk of his carries coming in the fourth quarter, and finished second to Brown with 443 rushing yards. But his 2020 season was over barely 10 minutes after it began.
“It was very frustrating for me,” he said. “It was a low point for me because I was doing everything right. I was going hard at practice every day, handling my business in school, doing all the things Coach had asked me to do. When it happened, it was very unfortunate. I just kept my faith strong and my mom and my dad and my family and my support system, they encouraged me, as well as the coaches and the training staff.”
Cain doesn’t know what the depth chart will look like prior to the Lions’ Sept. 4 season opener at Wisconsin, but he said everyone will be “giving everything we’ve got.”
“You’ve got to have depth because, as you see, I got hurt,” he said. “It could happen on any play. I feel like we have a great room right now. Guys are maturing every day. Sept. 4 is going to be here soon, so we’re just preparing right now in camp.”
Lee, whose best game last year was a 22-carry, 134-yard performance at Michigan, said he and his fellow running backs “are brothers on and off the field. We hang out. We talk a lot.” But he understands the importance of the competition among them.
“We compete and it just makes me better,” he said. “When J Love [Lovett] gets a rep and I see him go hard, it makes me want to go hard. Competing makes all of us better.”
Lovett, who was recruited by Penn State when he starred for Cherokee High School, said his transition to his new program went very smoothly.
“I love it because you’ve got to come to work every day,” he said. “There’s no days off. There’s so much talent in this room. It’s a competitive environment so all we do is work hard.”
Seider knows the challenge he’ll have keeping everyone happy and engaged. He said he speaks with his men all the time about putting team first, and he tries to be up front with everyone.
“A lot of people shy away from telling the truth,” he said. “If he’s third, tell him why he’s third. If he’s fourth, tell him why he’s fourth. They need to know that going into a game. What I’ll never do to a kid is tell him he’s going to play a series and he doesn’t go in. It’s hard. We’re going to try to get the best guys on the field.”