Amid injury recovery, Penn State's Noah Cain is learning how to lead
When Noah Cain came to the sideline with an injury on Penn State's first drive of the 2020 season, Penn State lost one of its most important contributors on offense.
Compounded by the absence of Journey Brown, the Nittany Lions might have also lost their self belief, running backs coach Ja'Juan Seider explained Wednesday night. With Cain set to return, Seider thinks that room is getting some of its swagger back.
"With any kid, that's what football is — it's a mind set, it's a belief that I am the guy, and I am the best player on the field," Seider said. "We lost that when we lost those guys because the confidence in the room went out.
"You're a better team when the players lead, and I think we're back to that area."
As for the specifics of Cain's return timeline, head coach James Franklin said Monday that Cain is targeting the second half of spring ball to begin partial participation, but Franklin said he isn't sure how much work he'll do.
"It's hard to predict, obviously a lot can change over a three or four week period of time, so we'll see," Franklin said.
The attitude that Cain infuses into the running back room is evident to those who have observed his rehab from an injury that forced him to miss all of last season.
No matter what the task is, Cain only has one gear.
"If you know Noah, he attacks everything full steam ahead," Seider said. "And it's no different, even with his rehab coming off this injury. He's doing the same thing. He's busting his tail in there.
"I see his work ethic in the training room. I see him working out in the gym. I see him running, all the things you want to see from a guy who's coming off an injury. And I see the eagerness that we all see in him when we watch him play as a player...He's that same guy."
When Cain does fully recover, he'll enter a running back group that carries an intriguing dynamic.
There are four running backs on Penn State's roster who have experience starting at the Power 5 level, including Cain.
Devyn Ford and Keyvone Lee both started games for the Nittany Lions last season in Cain's absence. Baylor transfer John Lovett started 20 games with the Bears, and that doesn't account for the promising Caziah Holmes, who appeared in all nine of Penn State's games last season.
Within that group, Cain is starting to emerge as a leader.
"What I love about him is he's starting to come out of his shell and be a leader in the room," Seider said. "He's such an alpha with his personality and when he speaks, I think the guys respond to him. I think he really welcomed John [Lovett] in the room, and that kind of gave John a little freedom to blend in with the guys. "
What Penn State needs from Cain, more than anything, is a long stint away from the injury table.
He suffered a high ankle sprain during his freshman campaign that limited him significantly, although he still managed to appear in 10 games and accumulate 443 rushing yards and eight touchdowns. Another lower-body injury made his sophomore season a washout.
He's very talented," Seider said. "He's a guy that I think we can definitely win the Big Ten with, but he's also a guy we need for a whole season.
"I'm excited for where he's at. He's eager. He's one of those kids who loves ball. He loves everything about football, so he's going to do whatever it takes to get back on this field. Hopefully we get him here sooner rather than later to at least some work in, because he's going to be a big piece to our offense moving toward."
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