Over the next several days leading into Penn State’s season opener at Indiana on Saturday, we’ll study the biggest storyline at each position. Today, we look at the running backs.

Noah Cain flexing his muscles

Penn State running back Noah Cain (21) celebrates a touchdown against Purdue during an NCAA college football game in State College, Pa., on Saturday, Oct. 5, 2019. (AP Photo/Barry Reeger)

Make no mistake about it, Kirk Ciarrocca’s offense at Minnesota last season set records and drew national attention because of what it accomplished in the passing game.

Also make no mistake, the NFL has taken notice of the receivers and offensive linemen who have starred in Ciarrocca’s systems in the past: Kenny Britt and Mohammed Sanu were receivers at Rutgers when he was leading that offense; Corey Davis (Western Michigan) and Tyler Johnson (Minnesota) were receiving stars under Ciarrocca, too. Taylor Morton and Chuks Okorafor were also blindside protectors at Western Michigan who wound up being drafted in the first three rounds by the Panthers and Steelers.

Still, Ciarrocca’s offenses over the years have been fairly balanced and reliant on versatile running backs.

In his last season at Western Michigan before leaving for Minnesota with head coach PJ Fleck, the Broncos had two running backs — Jarvion Franklin and Jamauri Bogan — combined for more than 2,600 yards from scrimmage. Two straight years, the Broncos averaged better than 200 yards per game on the ground and more than 5 yards per carry.

At Minnesota, he managed splitting carries between three experienced backs — Mohamed Ibrahim, Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith — who each averaged better than 5 yards per carry in 2019 and who, at times, were vital parts of the passing game, as well.

Penn State’s running backs are certainly better blue-chip talents than what Ciarrocca and Fleck had to work with at Western Michigan, and the Nittany Lions have always recruited dual-threat backs better than Minnesota, where the offense was much more run heavy in the years leading up to Ciarrocca’s arrival there.

Perhaps for the first time, backs like Journey Brown, Noah Cain, Devyn Ford and Caziah Holmes present Ciarrocca with an opportunity to be as balanced as possible at the position.

“A lot of the running backs that we have are not a traditional running back that just pound it down, just get the ball and run,” Brown said. “But I really feel like coach Ciarrocca, how he splits us out and lets us run routes and stuff… that’s going to open up and have us be against linebackers or whatever. I think we’re going to be very versatile this yea, and be able to take our running back group to the next level with that receiver stuff.”

That “receiver stuff” might be a key difference for a Nittany Lions backfield that combined for just 39 receptions last season, when they weren’t lined up as a receivers by previous offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne.

But Ciarrocca contends, the backs’ primary strength can be found in its talent and numbers, which will be needed during a grueling nine-game, nine-week schedule.

“I’m just excited to have this many good backs because I know that the Big Ten is tough and you’re going to get beat up at that position,” Ciarrocca said. “I think it’s unusual for a Big Ten running back, a featured guy who’s carrying the ball 20 times a game, to make it through a whole season and not be nicked up. To know we have three really, really talented backs – besides our true freshmen that are in the program – that are proven in Big Ten play, that makes me sleep a little bit better at night.”

The depth





Journey Brown

Noah Cain

Joseph Bruno

Devyn Ford

Caziah Holmes

Keyvone Lee

Tank Smith

Newcomer to watch

Caziah Holmes

RB Caziah Holmes

Caziah Holmes might have been the fastest prep running back in the nation last season, and he has evidently displayed that speed repeatedly in camp. It’s clear he’s going to have some role on the 2020 team, and a bright future afterward.

Question is, how much will he actually be able to play in a season when Penn State has three extremely talented running backs — Journey Brown, Noah Cain and sophomore Devyn Ford — ahead of him on the depth chart? Last season, Penn State rotated Brown, Cain, Ford and since-transferred Ricky Slade with somewhat mixed results early on; the running game took off once Brown and Cain forced a more exclusive time share in November.

Finding a defined role for Holmes in the running game might benefit Penn State, as his speed will be difficult to handle. Finding a defined role for him, though, will also be on the challenging side.

Numbers game

8Noah Cain rushed for a freshman record 8 touchdowns last season, and he broke the previous record held by Curt Warner and Saquon Barkley in just 10 games. He also became the first Nittany Lions rookie to rush for 100 yards in back-to-back games (vs. Purdue and at Iowa) since Barkley did it in 2015.


Player who needs to shine…

Devyn Ford

RB Devyn Ford

For his own good, Devyn Ford needs to find a road to a significant role.

The sophomore did some impressive things last season, averaging 5.6 yards per carry, picking up an 81-yard touchdown run and becoming the first freshman in four decades to gain 100 yards in a season opener. But he’s both firmly behind Brown and Cain on the depth chart, trying to fend off a stiff challenge from Holmes and coming off an arrest for a minor drug offense in August.

Conceivably, there’s a good opportunity for three backs to get significant-enough reps in this offense, but four might be stretching that a bit. A good start for Ford will put him firmly in that top three, and make Penn State’s running game an even more potent one for sure.