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Penn State Football: Nittany Lions With A Good Problem To Have In Running Back Room

by on August 07, 2019 10:00 PM

Penn State football has a good problem in its running back room.

On the one hand there is a lot of talent. Ricky Slade and Journey Brown bring experience to the table while freshmen Devyn Ford and Noah Cain join the Nittany Lions as highly coveted prospects. While all four have work left to do when it comes to proving their hype matches their production, it's hard to argue with the potential as it stands on paper.

The issue, how exactly do you make the most of that?

Consider this, over the past three seasons Penn State's leading rusher in terms of total carries has been Miles Sanders or Saquon Barkley while second leading carry-getter on each team has been Trace McSorley. The third and fourth rushers have averaged 59 combined carries between the two of them over the course of the year, a figure that averages out to a combined 4.5 carries per game.

2018 carries:

  • Miles Sanders: 220
  • Trace McSorley: 170
  • Next highest two: 73

2017 carries: 

  • Saquon Barkley: 217 
  • Trace McSorley: 144
  • Next highest two: 58

2016 carries: 

  • Saquon Barkley: 272
  • Trace McSorley: 146
  • Next highest two: 46

But first, back to the players.

"Noah is going to show up when it's live," Franklin said after practice on Wednesday. "His running style is breaking tackles, falling forward, he's the guy whose going to get four yards on a consistent basis, he's going to get a 12-yarder, and you're going to look down on the stat sheet and he's going to have 100 yards and it's not going to feel like that. Very productive, very pleased with him, his toughness, his maturity.

"Devyn is doing some really good things, we're excited about him," Franklin added as a storm rolled near campus. "He flashes, he's explosive, he's mature and has a mature approach, seems to be learning well. So far so good, he gives us a little juice, he tested really well this summer. That was probably the one thing on high school film we weren't sure about, he was unbelievably productive but we weren't sure what his top-end speed was, but he can run. He proved that in summer in testing and proved it on the field."

There are two schools of thought to what Penn State could do next. It could stash either Cain or Ford intentionally, saving a year of eligibility for sometime down the road. Of course there is no guarantee that either would stay at Penn State for all four or five years, potentially opting to enter the draft. Equally true, in a Penn State offense that has generally not relied on multiple running backs for production, exhausting a year of eligibility over 20-30 carries isn't guaranteed to have a worthwhile return.

Also true, and perhaps more likely, Penn State can opt to play whoever is ready, and the eligibility chips will fall however they do.

Although even that presents an obstacle, much like the quarterback room, Penn State's running back group is loaded with young players that will overlap their time in State College. Where a 2016 roster boasted running backs in all four classes, the 2019 running back roster is entirely underclassmen save junior Nick Eury. How that plays into their collective careers remains to be seen, but there is only one ball.

"The challenge is that they're not as spread out as we would like," Franklin said. "The reality is, that where we're going, we should be recruiting like that every year at every poison and guys come in and battle it out and guys who are ready to play will play and guys who aren't ready to play, they won't. The issue, in my opinion, is that in a perfect world we would like it to be more spread out in terms of classes."

In the end Franklin's point is correct, the Nittany Lions are trying to end up in a place where each position room is full of starters facing the threat of being relegated to the bench by players just as good. That kind of depth allows elite teams reload from year to year, but it also means that your favorite four or five-star prospect might not be playing every down, and that's a risk in its own right.

Ben Jones covers Penn State football and basketball for He's on Twitter as @Ben_Jones88.
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