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Depth & In-House Competition The Name Of The Game For Penn State’s Running Backs

There’s no shortage of intriguing position groups for Penn State football entering its 2021 campaign, and the running back core should certainly be mentioned among them.

The crew looked plenty cool, calm, and collected at the Nittany Lions’ annual media day at Beaver Stadium Saturday, and who could blame them? Ja’Juan Seider’s group boasts five rushers who have meaningful college football experience under their belts, including multiple who made their presence felt within their first few games in Happy Valley.

While he earned just three carries in 2020 before he sustained a season-ending lower-body injury, Noah Cain remains the talk of the group. After putting up a program-record eight touchdowns as a freshman and earning a role as a true bell cow in 2019, the chatter among Cain’s coaches and teammates is that he’s healthy and hungry to remind everyone of what he can do.

“We do rankings in our room. Right now he’d probably rank himself last because he didn’t play last year,” Seider said. That’s the type of guy Noah is.”

Missing a player of Cain’s caliber was a huge blow to a team already missing its star in Journey Brown last season. However, it allowed for young rushers to gain invaluable experience in a brutal all Big Ten schedule, namely true freshmen Keyvone Lee and Caziah Holmes.

Lee grabbed 89 carries last season for the Nittany Lions while Holmes sat behind him with 51, but both had their shining moments during a 2020 campaign that was mostly anything but.

Seider was quick to credit both of the rising sophomores at Beaver Stadium Saturday, noting that both were thrust into roles that most college football players have never faced before.

“Neither one of those kids had a summer last year. It was basically like they were both starting all over again,” Seider said. “Keyvone barely had a senior year of high school football, and to see his progression to be able to come start for us for the latter half of the season, he really propelled us to go win. What’d he rush for 140 yards against Michigan as a true freshman? That’s a big accomplishment for that kid.”

Seider also noted that Lee arrived in Happy Valley running a 4.7-second 40-yard dash, but now sits somewhere between a 4.46 and 4.5.

Lee led the group with 438 yards on the year and four scores, while Holmes grabbed 227 and two touchdowns. With that, newly hired offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich has a great problem on his hands: too many options at one position.

The fiery, energetic offensive mind is more than pumped to have so many rushers at his disposal. Along with the pair of second-year stars and Cain returning from injury, he has third-year Devyn Ford and Baylor transfer John Lovett right there to push the competitiveness.

“It’s simple. You compete your butt off. You practice hard, you play hard, and then we’ll figure out who emerges from that, Yurcich said. “When you constantly compete against one and other, you make each other better, and then your most competitive player rises to the top. That’s the process.”

As the competition heats up entering a month of camp, Yurcich and Seider now get a guy in John Lovett who will only push that competitive fire. After rushing for 1,803 yards and 17 scores over the course of his four-year career in Waco, Seider says the Nittany Lions are getting a slasher who “checks the boxes,” and even reminds him of Journey Brown.

Yurcich sees that as well, but he’s also excited for the fire and juice he’ll bring to the group.

“He’s got a stinger to him. I remember there was one instance in spring ball when things weren’t really going well, and he gave off an emotion that we all kinda rallied behind,” Yurich said. “I think he has that ability to be a really good leader for us.”

As James Franklin said during his press conference, the offense is going to need to be “firing on all cylinders” come September 4 when the Nittany Lions roll into Camp Randall Stadium for a date with Wisconsin. Fans may not see every running back hit their stride off the bat, but Penn State can certainly feel optimistic in its run game with five viable options healthy and poised for a bounce-back tour.

“Somebody’s gonna lead us in carries, but it’s maybe the third-leading carrier that helps us become the best backfield,” Yurcich said. “Regardless of the stats everybody’s got a very, very important role to push one and another. That’s what it’s gonna take to win a championship.”

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About the Author

Will Pegler

Will is a senior majoring in digital and print journalism and is an associate editor for Onward State. He is from Darien, Connecticut and is a lifelong Penn State football fan. He loves a good 80's comedy movie, Peaky Blinders, The Office, and the New York Yankees and Giants. You can catch some of his ridiculous sports takes on his Twitter @gritdude and yell at him on his email [email protected]

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