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An Updated Look At Penn State’s Banged-Up Running Back Corps

Although Penn State football came into the 2020 season with one of the deepest running back rooms in the country, things look pretty different after just one week of play.

James Franklin announced Tuesday Noah Cain would miss the remainder of the season due to an injury sustained against Indiana. His loss is a huge blow to a unity already missing star Journey Brown, who could miss the season as well due to an undisclosed medical condition.

Just three healthy running backs remain on Penn State’s most recent depth chart. Sophomore Devyn Ford and true freshmen Caziah Holmes and Keyvone Lee now make up the Nittany Lions’ backfield.

Franklin knows that if the Nittany Lions want to stay competitive this season, the remaining backs need to pull their weight.

“Those guys are gonna need to step up and be ready to play,” Franklin said. “We have to create a little more explosive plays, that’s something we felt like Journey and Noah were going to bring to the table for us. This is just the nature of where we’re at right now.”

Penn State’s running back rotation will look nothing like how Franklin or offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca envisioned coming into the season. Instead, it’ll likely take a similar form to this weekend in Indiana after Cain went down on the first drive.

Here’s how each piece could fit into the puzzle.

Devyn Ford

Ford, a former four-star recruit, will need to work hard and fast to help Penn State fans forget about his potentially game-costing blunder in week one. Ford waltzed into the end zone toward the end of the game, giving Indiana ample time to mount a game-tying drive.

Regardless, Ford will be Penn State’s RB1 for the foreseeable future. While he came into the season expecting to play a rotational role in the offense, he now is the leader of the room.

“His leadership is gonna be key with those younger guys,” Franklin said. “It’s one thing when Noah was the starting back and Devyn was gonna rotate in and be a complimentary piece, but now he can be the guy. He’ll grow into that, there’s no doubt he has the talent to do that.”

The 5’11”, 198-pound back picked up 20 carries for 69 yards Saturday, by far the most in the corps. Ford, an elusive and agile runner, will play a much different role than Brown or Cain, but Holmes and Lee should complement him nicely.

Caziah Holmes

Holmes, who would have been last on the depth chart prior to Brown and Cain’s missing time, now will play the No. 2 role in the Nittany Lions’ running attack. The 5’11”, 209-pound back has a similar running style to Ford and will likely continue as a rotational piece to keep Ford fresh. He could even pick up a kick-returning role to keep Ford as healthy as possible.

A former four-star back, Holmes has shown lots of great things and has big shoes to fill wearing No. 26. A recent video of him hurdling a defender during a practice drill was very reminiscent of Saquon Barkley.

For Holmes and fellow true freshman Lee, it will unfortunately be a trial-by-fire the remainder of the season.

“When we got started with this, those guys were fourth and fifth on the depth chart. So now we’re in a situation where they’re going to play prominent roles,” Franklin explained. “We’ve seen flashes of really good things from them during practice, and training camp, and meetings…but we thought we’d have a little bit of time to let them gain some experience in not-so-big moments.”

This means that Holmes and Lee will likely progress and grow into their roles as the season forges forward. With Ohio State next on the calendar, this may not be a great sign for the Nittany Lions. But you never know when a younger player will have that breakout game.

Holmes registered five carries for 16 yards against Indiana.

Keyvone Lee

Lee will continue to play a complementary style role as a backup to both Ford and Holmes. As 6′, 230-pound rusher, the freshman will function as more of a power back used in short-yardage situations.

Lee performed fairly well against the Hoosiers, racking up 35 yards on six carries for the Nittany Lions. His hard-nosed running gave Penn State a bit of an offensive spark late in the game. His 5.8 yards per carry was better than any running back on either team.

Similarly to Holmes, Lee will continue to undergo a trial by fire in his offensive role. Things have looked good for him so far, and he’s been the go-to guy when Penn State needs a big bag to just squeeze out a couple of yards.

Sean Clifford

Although he’s obviously not a running back, Clifford’s dual-threat ability was on full display Saturday afternoon. He took off 17 times for a total of 122 yards and a touchdown. His elusive 35-yard touchdown run made its way to No. 9 on Sportscenter’s Top 10 plays on Sunday.

If Clifford continues to be a threat on the ground, the offense could throw different looks at its opponents and create different opportunities in both the passing and rushing games. His ability to extend and create plays on passing downs will give the running back corps more room to work with on rushing downs.

Journey Brown?

Although Brown’s outlook for the season doesn’t seem too great, Franklin was adamant in saying he’s not out for the year just yet. Obviously, his return would be a huge boost for a Nittany Lions offense that couldn’t find a spark through most of the first half against the Hoosiers.

Regardless, Brown, who traveled with the team to Bloomington, will continue to provide an important role as a teammate and a leader. Getting him back out on the field would be a huge morale boost to the team as well.

“Journey’s been great in practice, great in meeting rooms, and I know he’ll continue to do that,” Franklin said of Brown’s character.


Penn State will be missing its top rushers against Ohio State on Halloween and will likely need big performances from the next man up in order to beat the Buckeyes. The game kicks off at 7:30 p.m. on ABC.

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About the Author

Ryan Parsons

Ryan is a redshirt senior majoring in business and journalism from "Philadelphia" and mostly writes about football nowadays. You can follow him on Twitter @rjparsons9 or say hi via email at [email protected]

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