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Penn State Football: Running Back Rotation Still Working Itself Out

by on September 19, 2019 11:50 AM

It has been five seasons since Penn State's second leading rusher was a running back with over 500 yards to his name. 

That honor went to Bill Belton, not far behind teammate Akeel Lynch, both averaging just under five yards a carry and around 10 carries per game.

Since then it has largely been a one-man show short of Lynch's 55 carries in the opening stages of the Saquon Barkley era. Beyond that it was all No.26, and the second leading rusher on the team for the next three years: the one and only Trace McSorley.

So for Penn State and coach James Franklin, having a running back room of four talented prospects is a good problem to have, but a new one to solve.

“It is what it is at this point,’’ Franklin said, on Wednesday following practice, a slight tinge of annoyance in his voice.

“We’ve got four guys, we kinda keep getting asked this question, but we’ve got four guys that we’re going to keep playing until someone separates," he added.

Franklin's answer is a bit of a two-way street, the Nittany Lions have had success from three of the four backs, once assumed starter Ricky Slade has 12 carries averaging just over a yard per attempt. Other than that it has been a competition between junior Journey Brown and the freshman duo of Noah Cain and Devyn Ford. 

So far the oldest of the three has been the most consistent three games into Penn State's season, but it's hard to ignore the explosive plays that each of his younger counterparts have shown, and the inevitability that those plays will result in more playing time.

But the result is something of a chicken and egg scenario. Does Penn State solve its running back rotation by giving one or two guys the majority of the carries, or does it continue let all four play until the answer is obvious? Alternatively, will sticking to a rotation like Penn State did against Pitt lead to the hot hand that day not getting the ball as much as he otherwise would? Noah Cain had a punishing drive in the second half against the Panthers but then never saw the field again, something Franklin admitted afterwards was a bit of an oversight.

In the long run Penn State having four talented backs to choose from is much better than the other way around, but that doesn't mean too many cooks in the backfield is the optimal formula either.

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