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Penn State’s History Of Replacements Filling Star Running Backs’ Shoes

One of the biggest questions facing Penn State football entering the 2018 season revolves around replacing one of college football’s most electrifying players – current New York Giants running back and Nittany Lion legend Saquon Barkley.

In an age of increased transfers and draft declarations, college football programs are familiar with how to deal with roster turnover. Accordingly, James Franklin and his staff have put the program in position to hit the ground running in the post-Barkley era.

Miles Sanders, 247Sports’ top-ranked running back from the 2016 recruiting class, has averaged 6.7 yards per carry on his 56 carries over the last two seasons. Additionally, the junior from Pittsburgh led the team in kickoff return yardage during his freshman season, showing his ability to make plays in space.

Ricky Slade, the nation’s best back in the class of 2018, enters his freshman season with a chance to see some serious playing time. The rookie tailback is explosive, recording an eye-popping 81 touchdowns over the course of his high school career.

With veteran Mark Allen waiting in the wings for more reps as well, the Nittany Lions’ backfield could be poised for a season full of exceeded expectations.

While we’re still a few weeks from knowing exactly what the post-Barkley era has in store for Penn State’s running back group, we took a look back at the seasons following the departure of four other Nittany Lion stars to see whether the position group was able to maintain the level of quality.

1974: Post-John Cappelletti Era

Cappelletti won the school’s only Heisman Trophy with 1,522 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns during Penn State’s 12-0 campaign in 1973.

Following him was Tom Donchez, a big, physical back from Bethlehem, PA. Donchez carried the ball 90 fewer times than Cappelletti in that ’74 season, finishing with 880 yards on 196 carries and seven touchdowns as the featured back. Donchez was eventually drafted by the Bills in the fourth round of the 1975 NFL Draft.

Penn State had five other running backs receive 40 or more carries that season – Duane Taylor, Woody Petchel, Jimmy Cefalo, Neil Hutton, and Walt Addie – as the running back by committee combined to average 251.5 rushing yards per game that season.

That 1974 team was able to follow up the undefeated 1973 year with a 10-2 record, the No. 7 ranking in the final AP Poll, and a Cotton Bowl victory over Baylor.

1983: Post-Curt Warner Era

Warner, a two-time All-American, racked up a career full of accolades as a Nittany Lion. He owned 42 school records when he left Happy Valley following the 1982 national championship season, and his 3,398 career rushing yards left a big void in the Nittany Lion offense.

While the Nittany Lions fell off during the 1983 season with an 8-4-1 finish, the Penn State rushing game continued to execute at a high level. Freshman running back and future first round pick D.J. Dozier broke onto the scene for the Blue and White, tallying more than 1,000 yards during his first season.

Backup Jon Williams tallied more than 500 rushing yards as a backup for the second consecutive season. Penn State seemed to recover well from Warner’s graduation; Dozier would go on to finish sixth in Heisman Trophy voting in 1986, as the Nittany Lions won their second national title.

Miles Sanders has the opportunity to become the next Penn State running back to write his name into the record books this fall. (Photo: Carly Weiss)

1995: Post-Ki-Jana Carter Era

Ki-Jana Carter’s illustrious career came to a close following the team’s undefeated 1994 season. The senior ran for more than 1,500 yards that year with 23 touchdowns, including the second-longest run in Rose Bowl history.

Carter became the top overall pick in the NFL Draft the following spring, and the 1995 season saw a stable of backs fighting to become the featured man. The Nittany Lions went 9-3 and finished ranked No. 13 in the country, averaging 208 rushing yards per game as a team.

While Carter’s former backups – Mike Archie, Jon Wittman, and Stephen Pitts – battled for playing time, it was freshman Curtis Enis that stepped into the spotlight.

Enis ended up becoming the No. 5 pick in the 1998 NFL Draft, as he accounted for 38 career touchdowns in Happy Valley.

2011: Post-Evan Royster Era

While Royster may not have been as flashy or talented as the other running backs on this list, he was able to reach the 1,000-yard mark three different times as the lead running back.

747 touches, 4,494 total yards of offense, and 32 career touchdowns give Royster one of the more impressive stat-lines out of all of Penn State’s running backs.

As the 2011 season unfolded, it became clear that it would be full of transitions and changes far more drastic and far more important than the changing of the guard at the running back position.

Silas Redd carried the ball for 1,241 yards in 2011, but transferred to USC in the wake of Sandusky scandal sanctions from the NCAA. Zach Zwinak, Bill Belton, and others helped fill the gap before Barkley took over the job in 2015.


How do you think Penn State’s backfield will perform this season without Barkley? Let us know in the comments!

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About the Author

Mitch Stewart

Mitch is a senior majoring in broadcast journalism from Roanoke, Virginia. In addition to his role with Onward State, Mitch talks about all the #sprots on Penn State's CommRadio. To contact Mitch, feel free to send him an e-mail at [email protected], and if you really don't value your social media accounts, follow him as he yells on Twitter about Penn State basketball @mitchystew.

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