DALLAS — They sat next to each other in the Cowboys’ locker room in AT&T Stadium laughing and cutting on each other like the best of friends.
They swear they are, these Penn State running backs.
Even though they appear to be in an overcrowded position group. One without enough running time and moments to shine for any one member.
Penn State’s Journey Brown, Noah Cain, Ricky Slade and Devyn Ford say their rotation that only stands to grow next season has been the best thing for all of them — even if they didn’t realize it at first.
They talked about their relationships, their bonding and their desire to stay at Penn State during Thursday’s media function in preparation for the Cotton Bowl against Memphis.
“There’s never going to be any dropoff,” Brown said. “In my opinion, more the merrier.”
The ever-improving Brown received the bulk of the work in November and figures to get a long look in Saturday’s game.
But the sled dog-running Cain should get a shot, too. He finally appears fully healed from that aggravating ankle injury that kept him off the field since October. He was the No. 1 guy then.
Slade has developed into the top pass-catcher of the group and should get a chance to prove himself there.
And Ford may be the most talented and yet the most mysterious of the group.
Can they all possibly stay together by the time spring practice turns into summer workouts … and then the 2020 season?
Incoming Florida prep stars Caziah Holmes and Keyvone Lee would push the group to six by then.
Meanwhile, this foursome continues to hang out and and support one another.
Offensive tackle Rasheed Walker calls the running backs the closest group on the team. Quarterback Sean Clifford admitted that he even doubted the rotation at first but was won over quickly. He offered an example of Brown running the length of the field to cheer a Cain touchdown more excitedly than he would his own.
“We talk all the time,” said Brown, the former state sprint champ. “We’re all real close, tight knit. We leave all the egos outside the door. It’s not B.S.
“Look at me now,” he said, continuing. “When all these guys are in the room competing, it only makes the starter better. Those guys want to push themselves so it pushes me. Them on my back feels that I can’t rest. I always got to be working doing something to get better.”
Penn State freshmen get to talk
Thursday marked the first time Cain and Ford were able to address reporters since they arrived at Penn State.
Cain is the most intriguing catch of the group. He grew up in Louisiana. He and his mother fled Baton Rouge, though, after Hurricane Katrina and moved to the Denton, Texas, area, about 40 minutes north of Dallas.
He eventually left there to play for IMG Academy, an elite boarding school in Bradenton, Florida.
Cain arrived at Penn State last January and made an immediate impression with his powerful, pile-moving running style.
He was building on his freshman success when he suffered that injury at Michigan State and never truly returned. He said it was the first time in his career he was sidelined, forcing him to reflect and contemplate his situation.
Could the Southern kid leave Penn State for a warmer, more comfortable environment and more playing time?
He said Penn State has made him tougher, better.
“I feel like I’m in a good spot. I’m not afraid to compete. I’ve competed since my freshman year of high school.
“I wouldn’t trade (this season) for the world. I wouldn’t redo anything. Everything happens for a reason.”
Ford was even more highly-rated coming out of high school, the No. 2 player in Virginia, according to 247Sports.
He showed glimpses of his speed and instincts this fall but earned even less work than Cain. He ran the ball 50 times as a true freshman, though that did include an 81-yard touchdown run.
Ford is the one teammates talked up the most here on Thursday.
“His elusiveness …,” Slade said. “You got a taste of it. We see it every day. He has the best hips in our room. He has ability to run full speed and make cuts really low and (stay) at full speed.”
Said Brown: “He can contort his body like an acrobat to get in and out of stuff.”
Said Cain: “You haven’t really seen him make somebody miss yet. … Once he gets in the open field y’all really get the opportunity to see what he’s about.”
Meanwhile, Ford said he looks up to the older Slade and Brown, learns from how they carry themselves. Slade won his teammates over for his work ethic and positivity after losing his starting job, offering to help others even more.
“That’s for every single guy in that room,” Clifford said. “How they carry themselves every day. How they talk about their brothers …”