Taking Stock: Running Backs
Blue White Illustrated continues its multi-part series examining the Nittany Lion roster as it proceeds through winter workouts and eventually into spring practices. Today, we'll continue with a look at Penn State's running back position following the early NFL departure for Miles Sanders:
OUTLOOK If this past season is to be used as a possible precursor, Penn State won’t mind if recent history repeats itself in its running backs room in the coming days, weeks, and months.
Just rewind the calendar a bit more than a year ago, with the “Barkley effect” well-underway, to understand.
“When you've got a guy like (Barkley) that plays such an exciting style of football and then obviously carries himself so well, too, you have players all over the country, eighth, ninth, tenth graders watching him play,” said head coach James Franklin in December. “You look at Penn State Football and you see the colors and the uniform and the exciting style, we play in the Rose Bowl and he's got that run where he made 17 people miss, and you know, it's a signature run, I do think that that has an impact because players sit there and they try to envision themselves doing something similar. So I think whenever you have exciting players like that, you know, it can make a huge impact.”
Though coaches, teammates, and certainly fans lamented having to see Saquon Barkley end his career as a Nittany Lion with a final season of eligibility remaining in his cache, the emergence of Miles Sanders in 2018 made the loss that much more bearable.
Sanders’ limited reps as a true freshman and sophomore behind Barkley helped produce a 2018 season with more than 1,000 yards on the ground (1,274 yards and nine rushing touchdowns on 220 carries) during the 2018 season.
Now, with Sanders opting for the same route as Barkley, officially declaring his pursuit of a career in the NFL just days after Penn State’s loss in the Citrus Bowl, the question is whether or not the Nittany Lions have another underclassman primed and ready for his own emergence. Penn State's coaches don't just think so; they're counting on it.
In other words, step right up, Mr. Slade. Or, step right up, Mr. Brown; or, Mr. Cain, Mr. Ford, or even Mr. Holmes.
You get the idea, and Penn State’s coaching staff does, too.
Having produced outstanding recruiting results at the position dating all the way back to Barkley, the Nittany Lions have effectively prepared themselves for positive turnover at running back on a yearly or biannual basis under James Franklin.
At least, that has been the case since the underrated four-star Barkley stepped onto Penn State’s campus in the summer of 2015. Now the NFL’s Rookie of the Year, Barkley preceded the arrival of four-star Sanders in the Class of 2016, who preceded three-star Brown, who preceded four-star Slade, who preceded four-stars Cain and Ford, each of whom signed to play for the Nittany Lions in December.
Ford, the No. 1-ranked all-purpose back in the class and No. 40 overall prospect according to Rivals, will arrive this summer. Cain, the No. 43-ranked prospect in the class and third-highest running back in the class, is already on campus.
(Holmes, a four-star prospect in his own right, arrived at Penn State this past summer as a walk-on transfer following his unceremonious divorce from Notre Dame due to an off the field incident.)
With all due respect to Brown, Cain, Ford, or Holmes, though, the heir apparent to Sanders would seem right now to be Slade’s role to lose following his debut in 2018 in which he quickly ascended to become the team’s second back behind Sanders. Though absent from participation for four games for unspecified reasons, Slade used his 45 carries to produce 257 yards and six scores, representing the third-most carries, yards, and touchdowns on the ground behind Sanders and quarterback Trace McSorley, respectively.
Maybe more important, checking in at a 5.7 yards per carry average, Slade demonstrated in his limited action an ability to produce steady results.
“Ricky obviously has shown some really good things, but he also has been through some experiences that will create opportunity for growth with him,” said Franklin early in the season, “and those experiences are similar to what Miles has been through in his past and Mark (Allen) has been through in his past.”
That so much other talent exists in the room already this winter and spring, with another big boost coming in Ford this summer, should keep the position interesting, though. Prior accomplishments aside, Slade will have no shortage of talent to outperform in preseason camp. The only other returning back with prior in-game carries is Brown, who finished the season with eight touches for 44 yards and a touchdown.
If Franklin’s December early signing day praise for Cain and Ford is any indication of their talent, consider the competition ready to go.
“We’ve got two really good backs who are really mature. One will be coming in early and one will be coming in this summer. They’re highly, highly productive guys. If you combine their stats, it’s ridiculous. You look at Noah, what he’s been able to do, obviously at IMG and his high school before that, it’s impressive. Devyn had over a hundred touchdowns in high school, so we’re fortunate to get two really good backs coming in here who are also highly competitive guys and both very mature.”
Certain to see some combination of Penn State's talent used, the emergence of primary ball-carrier is also almost certain to emerge. The competition to earn that job is just getting started.