STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Penn State running backs have posted four consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons. Of course, it helps that Saquon Barkley accounted for three of them before becoming the NFL’s offensive rookie of the year, and that Miles Sanders showcased his talent in his year as the primary ballcarrier to persuade the Eagles to draft him in the second round.
Now a new, and younger, group of running backs is ready to succeed Sanders, a potent mix of speed and moves and strength that will make it difficult on opposing tacklers. However, their skills could make it difficult on head coach James Franklin and his staff to choose a No. 1 back before the Aug. 31 opener against Idaho.
Perhaps Franklin will divide up the carries more this season. Quarterback Trace McSorley averaged 153 rushes in his three seasons and it’s questionable whether the new quarterback will be using his feet nearly as much.
If there is an incumbent, it’s sophomore Ricky Slade, who impressed in his first season with 257 yards, a 5.7-yard average, six touchdowns, and a knack for darting through the hole. He is joined by redshirt sophomore Journey Brown and true freshmen Noah Cain and Devyn Ford, both consensus four-star picks last year.
“I think we’re in a good spot,” the 5-foot-9, 198-pound Slade said at the Nittany Lions’ recent media day. “There’s a lot of us. We bring a lot of different things to the plate. We’re running back by committee, so we’re always going to have fresh legs no matter when it is. I think we’re going to be good this year.”
Slade said the backs are helping one another in the preseason.
“We all have different specialties,” he said. “I have good hands, so if somebody needs help with catching, I’ll help him with that. Someone has good vision or a good mental game … so if I need help with that, they help me with that. We’re all helping each other in different ways.”
The specialty of Brown, who put up crazy numbers – rushing for 7,027 yards and 106 touchdowns in his career – at Meadville High School in northwestern Pennsylvania, is speed. He ran 100 meters in 10.43 seconds to break the high school record of Olympian Leroy Burrell of Penn Wood.
After redshirting his freshman season, Brown wasn’t able to see much playing time last year, getting only eight carries. He and his playbook were constant companions in the spring and summer, however, and he’s ready to contribute this season.
“I was shaky last year in my confidence,” he said. “Now I’m just going over my playbook more and pouring more energy and being more engaged with the plays and taking help. I’m a very prideful person and asking for help is very difficult for me. I opened up and I feel that comes from maturity, and that’s what I ended up doing.”
When asked about Brown, Slade smiled and said, “That boy is fast.” But there’s more to his growth as a running back than just speed.
“Now that he’s gotten the playbook down, he’s way more explosive, he’s way faster,” Slade said. “He’s got the knowledge of the game down. I think that’s his biggest improvement since he’s been here.”
Like with Slade last year, Franklin may find more than a little playing time for his freshmen. Cain enrolled last January and impressed in the Blue-White Game. Ford came in during the summer and the coaches have taken notice. Franklin said he was pleased with both.
“Noah’s running style … it’s breaking tackles, it’s falling forward,” Franklin said last week. “He’s a guy that’s going to get four yards on a consistent basis. He’s going to then get a 12-yarder and you’re looking down at the stat sheet, he’s going to have 100 yards and it didn’t feel like it. He’s very productive.