Penn State's Backfield Gets an Early Stress Test

Journey Brown's out, Noah Cain is hurt. How will Penn State's remaining backs respond?
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Ja'Juan Seider stood next to his four Penn State running backs at AT&T Stadium last December and explained how watching them thrive together as the "LawnBoyz" in 2019 marked the most rewarding season of his coaching career.

"But it was hard," Seider, Penn State's running backs coach, said after the Cotton Bowl. "Even this game was hard. It's hard to play four guys, but it's four guys who deserved to play."

Seider and head coach James Franklin face a completely new challenge now. Three of those backs who played in the Cotton Bowl won't be in uniform Saturday when Penn State hosts Ohio State. And now Seider quickly has to develop two freshmen for the spotlight against the No. 3 Buckeyes.

The latest change to Penn State's backfield came Saturday, when sophomore Noah Cain, who started the season-opener against Indiana, sustained a season-ending injury on Penn State's opening series. That leaves Penn State with sophomore Devyn Ford, who ran for 69 yards and an accidental touchdown on 20 carries against the Hoosiers, and two newcomers being thrust into action. Keyvone Lee and Caziah Holmes combined for 51 yards on 11 carries, with Lee scoring his first touchdown.

"If I'm doing my math correctly, I think they were fourth and fifth on the depth chart," Franklin said of the freshmen. "So now we're in a situation where they're going to play prominent roles."

Penn State's "LawnBoyz" room, so full of life last season, looked overcrowded in January. All four backs (Ricky Slade, Journey Brown, Cain and Ford) left the Cotton Bowl saying they would return, and Franklin further had signed two impact recruits from Florida. Managing six running backs seemed like quite the act of juggling.

The situation certainly changed. In June, Slade transferred to Old Dominion, which is not playing this season. Before the opener at Indiana, Penn State announced that Brown could miss the 2020 season while dealing with an undisclosed medical condition.

Then on Saturday, Cain carried the ball three times for 13 yards and spent the second half on the sideline, wearing a boot on his left foot.

"Obviously losing Noah is not ideal," quarterback Sean Clifford said after the game. "He's a key factor to our offense and somebody who is a leader there, too. I wish him nothing but a good recovery. I have no idea with the injury is. ... But obviously we'd love to have Noah."

Ford, who averaged 6 yards per carry last season, gets an accelerated test of his preparedness and leadership skills. Thrust into a primary role against Indiana, Ford had some success but was involved in the game's late turning point, scoring a touchdown when he clearly wasn't supposed to. Teammate Pat Freiermuth told Ford to keep his head up and stay off social media, adding that he expected Ford would react positively.

He's now Penn State's most experienced back, with 72 career carries, and will start against the Buckeyes. Franklin said Ford did some "really nice things" against Indiana but will need to reach another gear.

"You're going to have to change your mentality," Franklin said. "It's one thing when Noah was the starting back, and Devyn was going to rotate in and be a complementary piece, to now being the guy. And I think he'll grow into that. There's no doubt that he has the talent to do that. And there's no doubt that we believe in him. But there is a difference between being the lead dog and a rotational piece."

Lee and Holmes, who arrived at Penn State as four-star prospects from Florida, will play far more substantial roles as well. Holmes (5-11, 209) has gained about 15 pounds since the winter, when Seider said he overcame homesickness to eventually push Brown during shuttle drills.

Holmes rushed for 1,472 yards and 19 touchdowns as a senior at Cocoa High in Titusville, and Seider said before the season that he expected Holmes to become a "household name."

Lee, a power-running 230-pound back from St. Petersburg, made a strong first impression by averaging 5.8 yards per carry against Indiana. Though he arrived at Penn State only this past summer, Lee was a stabilizing force in the second half in spelling Ford. Seider said Lee is "built the right way," calling him a "big kid with great football movements."

"Those guys are going to need to step up and be ready to play," Franklin said. "We have to create more explosive plays. That was something that we felt like Journey and Noah were going to bring to the table for us. But you know, this is just the nature of where we're at right now. A combination of injuries and COVID [regarding Micah Parsons' decision to opt out] have got us to this point."

Looking back, Penn State is fortunate to have recruited the position as it did. The team signed a two-back class for the second consecutive year, having brought Cain and Ford onto the roster in 2019. Had they not done so, "we'd have been in trouble," Seider said this past spring.

"Everybody says, 'You signed two [backs] this year, you signed two last year,'" Seider said. "Well, you know what? The teams that are winning are doing the same thing. Anywhere you go, you're going to have to compete."

Before the season, Franklin said that Penn State's backfield was on an upward trajectory, adding that, "there could be people in a couple of years talking about us as RBU." The Lions will test that trajectory Saturday.

"We've seen flashes of really good things from [the freshmen backs] during practice and training camp and meetings and things like that, but we thought we would have a little bit of time to let them gain some experience, maybe in not such big moments, meaningful moments, maybe early on let them let them grow into that," Franklin said. "But here's where we are. They're both extremely talented. We have a lot of belief and confidence in them, but experience matters. And we've got to speed up that maturation process a little bit more."

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