Noah Cain, Penn State Running Backs Primed For Strong Season Finale In Native Territory

With a roster full of players originally hailing from the northeast to the midwest, it’s safe to say the majority of Penn State football’s current squad are distant strangers to southern hospitality. 

In one particular position room, however, the Nittany Lions are pretty familiar with consistent warmth and sunshine. Led by Florida native Ja’Juan Seider, the Nittany Lions’ running back group features three key players with established roots in the sunshine state, including Noah Cain, Keyvone Lee, and Caziah Holmes.

After a campaign riddled by struggles and inconsistencies, Seider’s unit, led by the one-two combination of Cain and Lee, is excited to capitalize on one, final opportunity in the Outback Bowl headlined by home-state familiarity in Tampa. 

“I can’t wait to get back to the warm weather, that’s more of my niche,” Cain said. “This is a great opportunity for us to get back down there and play a great Arkansas team. Like I said, the running back room is going to be more motivated than ever. We’re planning on making plays in that game to help the team win.”

Although Cain is originally from Louisiana, the former four-star product spent the majority of his high school career at IMG Academy in southwest Florida. As the bell-cow back for the national powerhouse, Cain tallied 985 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns in just over a two-year span.

Cain’s combination of production and southern roots helped him garner eight offers from SEC institutions over the span of his four-year high school tenure, including a pair of bids from familiar opponents in Auburn and Arkansas. Now, the matured ball carrier is primed to return to Florida with his sights set on making family and friends proud while representing the blue and white.

“Coach Seider always jokes with me all the time, he calls me a Florida boy,” Cain said. “Even though I’m from Louisiana, he always jokes with me about that. Florida holds a special place in my heart, as well. I call it my third home up there. Like I said, I spent two and a half years out there, being at IMG. I built a lot of great relationships. I was in Tampa a lot, with certain family members being out there. It’s definitely a great place.”

Following a breakout campaign two years ago as a freshman, Cain suffered a season-ending injury on his first carry last season against Indiana. Despite declaring himself “100 percent” healed in August, his output showed a steep regression from his typically bruising, yet elusive style.

On 101 attempts, Cain totaled just 322 rushing yards, equating to a career-low 3.2 yards-per-carry average. After assessing his status following the regular season toll, Cain asserted that he never reached the health level he had originally hoped for. Instead, he admitted that he never truly felt healthy or comfortable following a lengthy recovery process.

“There were things I was battling through this year that I was trying to get myself out of,” Cain said. “Like I said, it was a long season. This bowl game, I feel like it’s going to be the best version of Noah Cain. Everybody has adversity that we go through, but you have respond the right way. You have to keep going and keep pushing. I just think there were a lot of learning lessons, a lot of learning curves this year, and trials I had to overcome.”

In the wake of Cain’s struggles, sophomore Keyvone Lee took the reigns as the starter throughout the second-half of conference play. While Lee amassed only three more carries than Cain, the Clearwater native produced 495 rushing yards, good for a solid 4.8 yards-per-carry mark.

While Cain’s demotion on the depth chart certainly served as a wake-up call, he was thrilled to see Lee find success in his former position. With two additional blue-chip prospects set to enter the running back rotation next fall, carries are only going to become a more limited commodity in Seider’s backfield. But, Cain believes the group’s team-first approach will always contribute to the cohesiveness of the position’s unique, tight-knit circle.

“I just think for [Keyvone] to make the strides he had towards the end, as the team needed to lean on him, he gave us the best opportunity to win towards the end of the season,” Cain said. “I think that was major, just for his confidence and for the team’s confidence. Him and I have become close over the past few years with communicating, and seeing where both of our heads are at as for as the offense goes. He has all the potential in the world to be the best at running back, so I’m just a happy and proud teammate about the strides he’s made.”

Despite Lee’s improvement, within Penn State’s backfield of four, four-star running backs, no player was able to eclipse 100 rushing yards in a single game throughout the season. This was the Nittany Lions’ first campaign without a rusher hitting the century mark since the program joined the Big Ten.

Regardless of boasting one of the team’s most stagnant rushing attacks in the past half-century, Cain believes that the numbers only tell half the story. Behind Mike Yurcich’s pass-heavy system, Sean Clifford attempted an absurd, 391 passes over the course of the season. For reference, Trace McSorley threw 387 attempts with two more games under his belt in 2016.

“The way our offense was going this year, how we’ve [relied] on the passing game so much, I just think certain carries became more limited,” Cain said. “We started hitting our passing game more, and those guys were stepping up to the challenge. Just because our stats weren’t all the way there this year, we made strides in becoming better overall football players.”

With just one game remaining on the schedule before heading into the offseason, Cain feels it’s important for the running backs to perform up to the program’s standard ahead of the highly anticipated New Years’ Day collision.

In order to carry favorable momentum into the offseason after a lackluster conclusion to Big Ten play, the Louisiana-turned-Florida product plans on showing the country that the Penn State backfield is “back” to its hard-nosed identity after being pushed around by several of its conference counterparts down the stretch.

“All eyes will be on us,” Cain said. “New Year’s Day at noon, it doesn’t get any better than that. The opportunity is there to show the nation that Penn State is going to finish the season the right way. At the end of the day, it’s a business trip. So, I just think we’re ready to play, and ready to show the country that we’re back.”

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About the Author

Connor Krause

Connor Krause is a senior from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania double majoring in journalism and business. He is a lifelong Penn State football and basketball fan and enjoys rooting for Pittsburgh sports teams. In his free time, Connor can be found playing golf or pick-up basketball. You can follow his Twitter and Instagram @ckrause_31.

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