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10 Questions with Ja’Juan Seider About Penn State Football’s Running Game… and His Future

Ja’Juan Seider is beginning his fifth season as Penn State’s running backs coach.

It has been a long and winding road to — and at — Penn State.

A former All-American quarterback who was drafted 205th in the 2000 NFL Draft – just six spots after Tom Brady – Seider coached at three high schools in his native Florida, then spent time in the college coaching ranks at West Virginia (twice), Marshall and Florida before coming to Penn State prior to the 2018 season.

At Penn State, he’s had the good:

A 1,000-yard rusher, in Miles Sanders, and 44 rushing touchdowns by his running backs in 2018-19, which brought about the creation of The Lawn Boyz, who have subsequently run out of gas. He’s also recruited five-star freshman running back Nick Singleton.

He’s also experienced the bad:

It has been 17 games, and counting, since the Nittany Lions last had a running back who ran for 100 yards in a game. And while he’s welcomed Singleton and freshman Kaytron Allen, Seider had to say good-bye this offseason to highly-touted Noah Cain, who transferred to LSU, and after the 2019 season to five-star Ricky Slade, who is out of football.

PSU has been a mixed bag for Seider, who ranks No. 2 in tenure among James Franklin’s 10 assistant coaches. (Terry Smith, who started with Franklin at PSU in 2014, is No. 1.) Seider has had 21 different co-workers in the full-time assistant coaches room since he started. That includes three wide receiver coaches, three offensive coordinators/QB coaches, two tight end coaches and two offensive line coaches. Talk about turnovers.

Most of Penn State’s assistant coaches met with the media two weeks ago, and during that time I spent nearly 20 minutes with Seider, some of the time just he and I. Much of the interview appears below, edited for length and clarity.

But, first, here’s a chart that looks at the performance of Penn State’s running backs in the 48 games (31-17) under Seider’s tutelage.

We should note there have been a number of obstacles in that time, combined with a run of bad luck: the early, unanticipated retirement of Journey Brown; a COVID-shortened season; Cain’s 2020 season cut short after one quarter due to an injury; a perennially-shaky offensive line; massive turnover at O-coordinator; and a string injuries to starting QB Sean Clifford. 

PSU RBS BY THE NUMBERS: 2018-2021

Here is the numerical breakdown for Penn State running backs only under the direction of Seider in his four seasons with the Nittany Lions:

YearAvg. CarryTDs100-yd. GamesPer Game Rushes-Yds.Season Rushes-Yds.Leading RB
20185.7518523.5-136306-1,761Sanders: 222-1,274
20195.8326824.5-143318-1,855Brown: 129-890
2020*4.649123.8-110214-994Lee: 89-438
20213.986022.2-89289-1,150Lee: 108-530

* 9-game schedule

10 QUESTIONS

1. How has Name, Image and Likeness changed recruiting?

Seider: “Let’s be honest: Recruiting isn’t the same as it was a year ago. Because now if the NIL discussion doesn’t come up with most of these kids, you can’t even talk to him. Let’s not be blind. It’s going on. Recruiting might not be an official visit; it may be a free agent signing bonus. That’s what we feel we are – an NFL team model.

“To me, if you change who you are, and you get away from the core of who you are when people trust you, then you have no chance even if you get in the door. Because even if the NIL becomes a big deal and say at Penn State we offer $2 million for a running back and Ohio State offers $2 million for a running back, we still have to get in that conversation for that kid to pick us – he has become a free agent at that point. So, your relationships are going to matter. … I’ve been a great recruiter because I outwork people. I build a relationship. There’s a trust factor with me.”

2. How do you keep everybody happy once they are at Penn State?

Seider: “Man, you just got to have great dialogue. I mean, they’re never going to be happy. But you have to be transparent and tell them like it is. If you have a No. 2 guy and he thinks he’s the starter, you got to tell him why he’s not the starter. You got to tell him why he’s No. 2. Then he has to look at himself in the mirror and reevaluate what he’s doing.

“Here’s a prime example: Devyn (Ford) at the end of the season, he’s like, ‘Coach, what is my role?’ I say, ‘Devyn, you started the Iowa game. And then you had turf toe and you missed basically four or five weeks. Was that on me or you?’ I think sometimes the kids forget those moments; you have to remind them, ‘Like, listen, the hot hand gonna stay hot.’ ”

3. What is the importance of distributing carries?

Seider: “We try to play more than one guy. I think it’s a world where you need to because the game has changed. NFL guys are playing longer because they made it (to the NFL) with more tread on the tire because they didn’t have to be the bell cow or play 70-80 snaps a game.

“And that’s where we got to be smart because we owe it to these kids. We can’t let these kids leave here and not get an opportunity because they got beat down. I think that’s unfair. I’d rather have a really fresh gun in the fourth quarter than a tired guy down in the third quarter and we got to go beat Ohio State.”

4. Is there anything to one guy getting into a rhythm or in-sync during the game?

Seider: “There is. But also nobody ever takes count (of all the plays). We put these guys in motion and we run the ball deep on a pass play. They get tired. They’re human. So yeah, you want to be in a rhythm. But sometimes you have to spread the offense around. But If you’re the best player, we want to play the best player. I win as a coach, James Franklin wins as a coach, Penn State wins as a program, when we can play the best player who can help us win.”

5. What’s the toughest part of coaching these days?

Seider: “The disappointment. I wish I could go into my (position) room and play five running backs. I do. But that isn’t the world we live in. So, I have to deal with the guy who is pouting because he only got two carries. I never want to disappoint anyone. My biggest fear is failure.”

6. Does that fact that your guys haven’t run for 100 yards in a game for “X” amount (17) of games mean anything?

Seider: “That’s a good question. Last year was the first time for me. So, I’m still learning how to handle that. I’ve never been in a program and or been in a season where we didn’t have a 100-yard rusher. There have been other games throughout the season where we had over 200, 300 yards rushing as a collective group.

“We did some stuff this offseason and even after the bye week that made us a better running team. I don’t want to dive into that, because people will see it next year when we kick off and I think it will make us better.

“But I will tell you this: When Keyvone (Lee) started his first game against Michigan in the Big House (in 2020) there were no fans there, but the kid still ran for (134) yards. So those kids haven’t forgotten how to run the ball. You know what I mean? We got to remind them of that and we got to coach better and they got to play better. So collectively, I think we’re on the right track to do that.”

7. Want does the addition of Nick Singleton mean to your running game?

Seider: “A lot. I mean, you talk about a kid who can take it the distance on every carry. His speed is, for his size and his youth, you don’t get a lot of guys who are like that. His strength — I mean you don’t get too many kids who can walk into a program and squat over 600 pounds. His mindset — he wants to be great. And he has a relentless work ethic. He doesn’t get tired. When a kid wants to be great, he is willing to sacrifice and good things are going to happen.

“And you know what? He’s a great teammate. You know, he came in with another freshman (Kaytron Allen) who is pretty good. And I think the bond that those two guys are going to carry will help both of them down the road.”

8. What are your thoughts on the departure of Noah Cain (to LSU)?

Seider: “You know, it is the nature of the game to me. It is next man up. You treat it like an injury. I’m not going to dwell on that. I say we did a great job with him when he was here. He felt different and wanted a fresh start. That’s his opinion. We’re going to worry about the guys here and we’re going to coach the hell out of them and get them ready to play.”

9. How important is it to be working again with Mike Yurcich, the first time at Penn State you haven’t had a new offensive coordinator?

Seider: “It’s been four years in a row we had a new coordinator, from Ricky (Rahne) to Kirk (Ciarrocca) to Mike and now it’ll be two years in a row with Mike, with two springs with two summers to fall camps. For us to be able to speak the same language goes a long way. … That’s a process for everybody to go through, even the head coach, because it’s different than he was accustomed to.”

10. What are your career goals?

Seider: “We’ve had a very loyal staff, but you also have to be loyal to where you want to go in this profession… There are parameters that make sense where I feel like I can grow, where it makes sense for me to uproot my family. I have a son on the team who is going to be a senior. I got a daughter who is going to be in high school as a senior. For me to take them into an environment that I don’t think is the right situation, I won’t do it.

“But if I think it was a situation that’s going to help me get a next step, the next step to have a better chance to be head coach or call plays, then I’ll do it. I’m not just going to leave here for a lateral move; I don’t think that will benefit me down the road. And then I got a great situation here. I got a head coach with stability. He has a 10-year contract; that’s rare in college football. And as an assistant coach, the most important thing you have is stability.

“Do I always think I’m ready to get another job? Yeah, I got a good reputation. If you know me and where I come from and how I was raised and how I was brought up in this game and how I recruited and how I motivate my guys I my room, to speak in a volume so I mean what I’m talking about if I’m a head coach, to galvanize a room right to get them ready to play, to recruit right, to engage people to make them want to play for you — I am ready do that.

“So, when that opportunity comes, I’ll be prepared. It’s the reason why I stay with one of the best head coaches in college football, to learn those tools. So, if I get that opportunity, I’m prepared for it. To me, that’s why I’m here.”