DALLAS –– Devyn Ford knew all about Noah Cain during the recruiting process.
While Ford was steadily climbing up the running back rankings, he was always aware of the player from IMG Academy that was ahead of him near the top of the rankings.
When Ford first met Cain at the Under Armour All-America game, he got a good glimpse of his stoic, future teammate.
“Noah had this cold, stern look on his face,” Ford recalled on Thursday. “Getting to know him, that’s just how he is.
Penn State fans got to see how much potential Cain had on the field for a few weeks in the middle of the season, but an ankle injury suffered against Michigan State has limited him to just one carry since the Nittany Lions’ 28-7 win over the Spartans on Oct. 26.
Speaking to the media for the first time as a Nittany Lion on Thursday, Cain confirmed he’s ready to go for Saturday’s Cotton Bowl matchup against Memphis.
“This December, I’ve been practicing at full speed, back to myself. I’ve been working my tail off to get back on the field with my teammates, and I’m just ready to play,” Cain said. “The last game I really got to go was Michigan State, so I’m really anxious to go out there and show off my talents.”
That one carry he got was in the loss to Ohio State in the penultimate game of the regular season, and it came four weeks after his last game action. Franklin had said in the weeks leading up to that game in Columbus that Cain was progressing well and probably could have played, but the depth in the running back room caused them to be especially cautious with the talented freshman.
“It was definitely tough,” Cain said of the time he had to sit out. “Coach Franklin and [running backs] Coach [Ja’Juan] Seider, we had a lot of tough conversations before every game. I wanted to play, but they had my back. They wanted to make sure I was good for the future.”
Cain said he felt fully healthy for the Ohio State game and was eager to play against the Buckeyes, but in hindsight he appreciates how much his coaches were looking out for him.
“I plan on playing this game for a long time, so just to know that they have my back off the field is a blessing,” Cain said.
But that time spent on the sidelines did weigh on Cain, who was enjoying plenty of success in his first season at Happy Valley and had a variety of fans and media members campaigning for him to be the starter.
“As time went on, I wasn’t getting right as fast as I wanted to,” Cain said. “That’s when I had a setback in my mind. But my coaches and my trainers kept my mind mentally strong so I could stay ready.
“I was gaining a lot of confidence. I gained confidence in the spring, coming in early, getting my body right, getting used to the playbook. As time went on, I got better on and off the field.”
The Louisiana native had a two game stretch in early October in which he rushed for over 100 yards against Purdue and Iowa.
The inconsistent playing time and four-man rotation didn’t bother him at all. It’s something he was used to from his time at IMG Academy.
“I tell my coaches all the time, IMG definitely prepared me for this,” Cain said. “At IMG, you might not get the most carries, but you gotta make the most of your opportunities. I just learned that whenever my number is called, I gotta make plays.”
Cain expected to have success when he came to Penn State, but he didn’t expect to face the adversity he did. But the way he’s handled his struggles in getting back on the field hasn’t gone unnoticed among his teammates.
“He’s one of the hardest working guys in the program,” redshirt-sophomore quarterback Sean Clifford said. “He had adversity, but I knew day in and day out all he was thinking about was getting back out on the field.”
There won’t be any nerves for Cain playing in a New Year’s bowl game at AT&T Stadium on Saturday, even though he really hasn’t seen the field in over two months.
“It’s just football at the end of the day,” Cain said. “Regardless of the stage you’re one, you’ve got 11 guys on the field you’re going up against. You can’t worry about the crowd and all the extra attention, you’ve just got to go out there and play.”