A Crowded Backfield: Which RBs Will Stand Out for Penn State in 2021?

Opinion/Story posted April 20, 2021 in Sports, CommRadio by Andrew Destin

Despite falling victim to injuries both prior and during the 2020 campaign, Penn State football’s running back corps was and still is arguably the deepest position group on the team. Flash forward to 2021 and the Nittany Lions’ tailback room is even more crowded.

The blue and white went 4-5 last fall after losing Journey Brown prior to the year for medical reasons and Noah Cain after he injured his leg against Indiana in the season opener.

While Brown’s playing days appear to be over, Cain is back in the fold, joining last year’s leading rusher Keyvone Lee, Devyn Ford and Caziah Holmes in the backfield.

Though both Lee and Holmes showed flashes in 2020, the duo combined for only 665 yards in the nine-game season. But don’t let the statistics fool you: Penn State was a run-first team last fall and likely will be again this season.

Sean Clifford, who is positioned to be the team’s starting quarterback after a tumultuous redshirt junior campaign, was second on the blue and white in rushing with 335 yards to go along with a trio of scamper scores.

Meanwhile, Will Levis has departed the program for Kentucky, meaning it appears—barring an unforeseen incoming transfer—that Clifford will be the full-time starter for the Nittany Lions come this fall.

So, with the quarterback position established and Clifford likely to see less time sliding or being pounded in new offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich’s offense, only one question remains: How will the carries be split in the backfield?

The answer isn’t as easy as choosing one of the aforementioned four possible running backs in Cain, Lee, Ford and Holmes.

Though all four present compelling arguments for becoming the program’s bell cow, another workhorse has entered the fold: John Lovett, a Burlington, New Jersey, native who played his previous four seasons at Baylor and accumulated 1,803 yards on the ground and dashed for 17 rushing touchdowns.

While the assumption after the 2020 season was that at least one running back would exit the program, the opposite has happened with Lovett now on the scene.

Now, Yurcich will not only be tasked with ringing in a new offense (and perhaps determining if Clifford truly is the answer as the field general) but he will also have to figure out how to evenly feed a talented group of running backs.

Naturally, the logical choices for running backs to slide toward the bottom of the food chain are Ford and Holmes.

Even after starting several games for the Nittany Lions last season, Ford never eclipsed 70 yards rushing in a game once despite having double-digit carries three times. However, Ford does present a valid argument as a player with extensive experience.

Meanwhile, Holmes only totaled double-digit carries twice in 2020, though he did make the most of his opportunities; in the team’s final game against Illinois, he had 77 yards (more than Ford ever had in a game, mind you) and chipped in two rushing touchdowns.

And while Cain burst onto the scene with a spectacular freshman season that included eight rushing touchdowns and more than 400 yards on the ground, there is much uncertainty about whether after a season-ending surgery he can return to his phenomenal form.

Then there is Lee, who had more than 300 yards combined over the last four contests of the regular season. Cain and Lee are similar north-south runners who don’t necessarily possess the same breakaway speed Ford, Holmes and Lovett all do.

It will prove to be nearly impossible for head coach James Franklin and Yurcich to balance an equal number of carries among the five running backs to keep everyone satisfied. The blue and white averaged just under 45 carries per game in 2020, and almost 20 of those came from either Levis or Clifford.

Considering Yurcich made his money at schools like Texas and Ohio State by airing the ball out, it could reasonably be assumed that the Nittany Lions will run the ball even less under the first-year offensive coordinator.

With such details in mind, it would make the most sense that two or three running backs emerge from the pack.

My best guess? Lee, Cain and Lovett will rotate carries, Ford will enter the transfer portal prior to the season, and Holmes will find himself slotted below both Cain and Lovett.

It remains unclear if Lee or Cain would be the feature back, but the point remains: with five running backs, no more than three (OK, maybe four) can be expected to receive a legitimate number of snaps.

As movement continues for which teams players in college football suit up for, expect more fluidity and fluctuation in the months to come, especially within Penn State’s running back room.


Andrew Destin is a junior majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email ajd6360@psu.edu.