football Edit

Penn State Football Review and Preview: Running Back Edition

As the 2021 college football season approached in the late summer months, Penn State’s running back room garnered some pretty significant national recognition.

The Nittany Lions would be the only program in the country to boast three running backs on the Doak Walker Award watch list, which features the most talented backs in all of college football.

Obviously the assessment of Penn State's running back room changed tremendously once the year got started and the group’s struggles would end up setting the offense back significantly as the season played out.

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Similar to the previous few years under James Franklin, Penn State’s running back room was projected to be as strong as ever with a number of returning players thought to be immediate difference makers.

But shockingly, the Nittany Lions could not manage to get a single 100-yard rushing performance last season which turned Mike Yurcich’s offense into a relatively one-dimensional attack.

Start with Noah Cain, who was expected to be the starting back after returning from a season ending injury he suffered on the opening drive of 2020 in the loss to Indiana.

Cain had a tremendous freshman campaign in 2019 and was a crucial part of the offense in a number of games in Penn State’s eventual 11-win year.

But the Baton Rouge, Louisiana, native never gained the momentum that he did in his first college season and it seemed as if injury issues and a lack of a full offseason hurt Cain in the long run.

It appeared that there was a lack of conviction from Cain out of the backfield all year long and with a suspect run blocking game to add to it, the redshirt sophomore looked like he needed a change, which is just what he did with his transfer to LSU.

Penn State’s other workhorse runner in Keyvone Lee had his struggles early on as well, as the power back had no rushes over 12 yards in the team’s first four games.

After his breakout campaign in 2020, he had just 530 yards and two touchdowns and didn’t play the ‘thumper’ role in the offense that so many envisioned for him.

The third Doak Walker candidate was Baylor transfer John Lovett who struggled to even get on the field, playing in just eight of 13 games after missing the first two due to reasons undisclosed by the program.

He and veteran back Devyn Ford were expected to be utilized in the Nittany Lion passing game and become check down options for Sean Clifford but neither would end up surpassing 40 yards receiving on the season.


There are going to be some significant changes to Ja’Juan Seider’s running back room this season with two very talented recruits coming in.

As previously mentioned, Noah Cain is heading back to his hometown school in LSU which means that Keyvone Lee is set to be the lead back for Penn State, at least to start the 2022 season.

Much of Lee’s struggles in 2021 can be placed on himself but the offensive line certainly did not do the sophomore any favors and really struggled to help out all of the backs in general.

But with improved offensive line play and a healthy Lee, there is no reason why the St. Petersburg, Florida, native can’t boost his production and take hold of that RB1 spot which eluded him last year.

Whether or not he keeps that title will be up to Lee but he will constantly carry the pressure of having two heralded running back prospects in Nicholas Singleton and Kaytron Allen breathing down his neck.

Singleton is coming off one of the best seasons for a Pennsylvania running back in recent memory that earned him the Gatorade National High School Player of the Year award among a number of other national honors.

It isn’t crazy to think that he could have a similar immediate impact that Saquon Barkely did in his freshman campaign in 2015, which is something Penn State could really use after a down year of running the football.

Kaytron Allen is another four-star prospect to get excited about for the Nittany Lions as he presents some intriguing measurables that translate to him being an effective and powerful back at a high level coming out of IMG Academy.

Both players have diverse skill sets that should allow them to thrive in a variety of situations and are a vital part of Franklin’s stacked 2022 class that should boost the in-team competition in training camp this offseason.

With Cain gone, it likely gives Singleton a path to get significant snaps next fall and there is reason to believe that Lee and Singleton have skills that complement each other well.

Also returning for Penn State next year is third-year man Caziah Holmes who after seeing some meaningful snaps in 2020, played sparingly in 2021.

Devyn Ford also comes back to Happy Valley next season but should primarily be used in special teams and kick return situations.

So, if Penn State wants to improve to better than 13th in the Big Ten in average rushing yards per game next season, it is going to need contributions from both its veterans and young players.

But with the talent that will be on the 2022 roster, there is no reason that there should not be significant advances in the running game given they stay healthy and the offensive line can hold its own.


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