As Penn State finishes its first week of spring football practice, confidence at the running back position is surging again. Noah Cain has shown a vigorous devotion to rehab, fellow sophomore Devyn Ford brings a "presence" and freshmen Keyvone Lee and Caziah Holmes continue to build on their unexpectedly busy freshman seasons.
Then there's transfer back John Lovett, who started 20 games in his four years at Baylor. That's why running backs coach Ja'Juan Seider began spring practice with a challenge.
"In this room, we've got [four] guys who have started a college football game," Seider said. "This thing is wide open. Who's going to compete? Are we going to take a backseat once Noah comes [back], or are we going to push Noah for the job?"
Though he didn't play last year, or perhaps because he didn't, Cain remains the biggest presence in Penn State's running backs room. Head coach James Franklin said this week that he expects Cain to practice in some form during the second half of spring drills and to be ready for the season's start in September.
Seider reiterated that point, noting that he has watched Cain carefully during the past five months.
"I'm around. I'm very present with my guys. That's all we've got, is time, in this whole COVID year. There's nothing else I can do," Seider said during a media session after practice. "So I've seen his work ethic in the training room, I've seen him working out, I've seen him running, all the things you want to see from a guy who's coming off an injury. And I see the eagerness that we all see in him when we watch him play."
Cain made an electric debut in 2019, surpassing Saquon Barkley and D.J. Dozier to set the Penn State freshman record for rushing touchdowns (eight). He missed three games late in the season with an ankle injury but returned in the Cotton Bowl to rush for 92 yards and two touchdowns.
Last October, Cain talked proudly about becoming an elite college running back. He had changed his diet and trained in California and Arizona through the pandemic before the season. He was ready.
"I feel leaner and quicker and faster," Cain said three weeks before the season began. "So I'm just excited to show that against Indiana on October 24."
His sophomore campaign lasted barely six plays. One series into that game, Cain sustained an injury that ended his year. And, coupled with Journey Brown's medical retirement only a few weeks earlier, it also ended Penn State's confidence in the running back room.
"It was going to be fun watching him and Journey Brown go at it and feed off each other," Seider said. "There's no doubt in my mind, at that point having all those guys together, we had the best running back room in the country. Because it wasn't just about their skillset. It was about their mindset. ... And we lost that when we lost those guys, because the confidence in the room went out."
Then Lee and Holmes were thrust into action. They combined to rush for 665 yards and six touchdowns, with Lee (438 yards) leading the team. Now Cain is back, though his injury history gives the coaches pause.
"He's a guy that I think we can definitely win the Big Ten with," Seider said. "But also he's a guy we need for a whole season. Unfortunately, we haven't had that yet."
Seider delivered a similar message about Ford but for different reasons. Like Cain, Ford is in his third year in the program. Seider said that requires the back to take the next step.
Ford took over for Cain in the opener but ceded more playing time to Lee and Holmes during the season. Then he was injured late in the year, and Lee started three of the last four games.
Ford, who has averaged 4.8 yards per carry in his career, has shown more maturity this offseason, Seider said. He also will be an asset, notably catching the ball, in coordinator Mike Yurcich's offense.
"He is one of the most talented kids on our team as a running back," Seider said. "But at some point, we've got to stop talking about how talented you are, and you've got to put it together for a whole season. ... I still believe in that kid. I think he brings a presence to what we do offensively running the ball, catching the ball, in the return game. I still believe in his potential as a player. Now, we've just got to get it."