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Penn State’s Full House: Five Running Backs, One Ball

by on March 21, 2019 7:00 PM

Penn State will have a full house at running back in 2019.

And, maybe a conundrum.

James Franklin has a pair of top-ranked freshmen in Noah Cain and Devyn Ford. Plus a pair of sophomores in Ricky Slade and Journey Brown (a junior academically).

And a wild card in C.J. Holmes, who sat out last season after transferring from Notre Dame.

But, there will only be one football.

With only so many carries to go around.

In Franklin’s eight years as a head coach — at Vanderbilt, then Penn State — his running backs have averaged about 27 carries per game.

At Penn State, with ace RPO triggerman Trace McSorley running the show, the last two seasons have seen the lowest average carries per game for RBs under CJF. That’s despite transformative runner Saquon Barley and rising NFL prospect Miles Sanders at Franklin’s beck and call.

At Vanderbilt, Franklin’s backs toted the rock at a rate of 26, 33 and 27 carries per game from 2011-14. Under Franklin, Penn State’s backs have averaged 27.5, 27.3, 26.6, 21.5 and 24.4 carries per game. Specifically:

In 2017, Nittany Lion running backs averaged just 21.5 carries per game, with Barkley getting 76% (217) of those carries. He was at 73% (272) in 2016.

In 2018, Penn State running backs averaged 24.4 carries per game, with Sanders getting nearly 70% (220) of those carries.

CARRIED AWAY: PENN STATE HISTORY

Some Penn State comparisons:

1973 — In his Heisman Trophy season when he rushed for 1,522 yards, John Cappelletti had 49.5% of all carries by a PSU running back that year.

1994 —Ki-Jana Carter rushed for 1,539 yards and 23 TDs, and was then picked No. 1 in the NFL Draft. He had just 54% of all carries by a PSU running back that season as quarterbacks Kerry Collins and Wally Richardson combined for 18 carries — the entire season.

2001 — Larry Johnson Jr. ran for a school-record 2,087 yards, and accounted for 69% of all rushes by a Penn State running back that year.

How will Franklin, offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne and running back coach Ju’Juan Seider share the wealth among that plethora of backs in 2019?

Here’s the seed that Seider planted with Ford, the nation’s No. 40 recruit and last season’s top-ranked high school all-purpose back, and Cain, ranked No. 43 overall and the No. 3 running back in the nation: 

Look at Georgia.

“We do have different strengths and we all have different weaknesses,” Ford said in December while in Orlando for the Under Armour All-America game. “but I believe that all of us contributing and actually making each other better can impact the offense as a whole. I feel like we can get a running back rotation going like Georgia had with D’Andre Swift and Nick Chubb, Sony Michel, and have that going.”

Sounds good, but let’s look at the numbers:

In 2017, Georgia had a peach of a backfield. Chubb ran 223 times for 1,345 yards, with 15 TDs; Michel rushed 156 times for 1,227 yards and 16 TDs; and Swift ran 81 times for 618 yards and three TDs. (The stats are here.)

Bulldog running backs that season carried the ball nearly twice as many times per game (44.7) as Penn State running backs did in 2017 and ’18 (22.9). 

In 2017, Georgia running backs carried the ball 611 times (91% of all carries), and quarterbacks just 59 times (9%).

At Penn State in 2017-18 combined, Nittany Lion running backs carried the ball 597 times (68% of all carries), while PSU quarterbacks — mostly McSorley — carried it 274 times (32% of all carries).

The Georgia math just doesn’t add up north of the Mason-Dixon. At least based on a lot of RPO's when the option has the QB running.

THE PENN STATE FORMULA

Seems to me that number of carries that Nittany Lion running backs will get in 2019 depends upon who the starting quarterback is. If it is Tommy Stevens, the 2017-18 model is more likely. If underdog Sean Clifford gets the bid, Ford’s idea of replicating the Georgia 2017 model is much more likely.

Ford thought it would work, even if Sanders had stayed. (BTW: Sander’s stock continues to rise; one NFL agent from the West Coast told me this week that Sanders could very well be the first back off the board in the NFL Draft, leaping ahead of Alabama’s Josh Jacobs on the basis of a strong Combine and Pro Day.)

“Think about it,” Ford said. “You got Noah Cain as the power back and you got me, I’m kind of the all-around back, and then you got Ricky Slade as the speed back and Miles Sanders, and if Miles leaves or not, but that’s a three-headed monster right there and you got Journey Brown. Don’t forget about him.”

Cain enrolled early in Penn State in January, with a multitude of others. So he’s been getting some run in the Nittany Lions’ spring practices. Ford will start classes this summer.

As a true freshman in 2018, Slade ran for 257 yards and six touchdowns on 45 carries — a 5.7-yard average. That’s despite missing four games mid-season under unexplained conditions. Brown had eight carries in five games for 40 yards and a TD.

After Penn State’s practice on Wednesday, Franklin said that while Cain is able, he is just getting his feet under him. And besides, what a back does on March 20 in Holuba Hall has little bearing on what he will do November 23 in The Horseshoe.

"Will Cain be a factor in 2019?" a reporter asked Franklin.

“I don’t like to say that about any of the guys — it’s just too far out,” Franklin replied. “But he’s good. He’s blended really well with the guys. His freshman class as well as the older guys. He really has a way about him. I kind of describe him as an old soul in his demeanor. I think him and a lot of these guys, though, sometimes they put too much pressure on themselves too early. They expect to come in and it’s going to happen for them. That’s not the case.

“There’s got to be a little patience. I see flashes of things, but it’s too early for any of these guys to say. They expect to come in and it’s going to happen for them, and that’s not the case. There’s got to be patience. I see flashes of really good things. It’s too early to say how any of these guys are going to factor I the fall. There’s a lot of time and competition between now and then.”

THE LINE FROM GONZALEZ

A few minutes later, I asked fifth-year offensive lineman Steven Gonzalez, who has started a team-high 29 games, if a single back could emerge as the go-to guy?

He said yes.

At 6-foot-4 and 349 pounds, Gonzalez is a tough guy to argue with.

“I could see someone getting the job. It could be Journey Brown, it could be Ricky Slade,” Gonzalez said. “There’s competition between those guys. That’s more of a question for Coach Seider. They both look really good so far from watching film. C.J. Holmes looks really good. I think there will be really intense competition throughout the year. It’s going to take until like the last day before the first game before they decide.”

Gonzalez says he doesn’t have a preference.

“It doesn’t matter,” he deadpanned. “We just block.”

“We do what we have to do, no matter who’s back there,” Gonzalez added. “It could be Saquon, it could be Franco Harris back there. It could be Ricky back there. We just do our job and they put whoever they want back there.

I begged to differ with Gonzalez to his face, even at his size.

“I don’t know whether Franco could do that well,” I told The Big Guy, having seen that the legendary back’s 69th birthday was a few weeks ago. “After all, he’s almost 70.”



Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for StateCollege.com since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/PSUPoorman. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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