Penn State will open its season without one of the most promising running backs in the nation.
It will face what coach James Franklin calls “the best Indiana team we have played by far” without Journey Brown in Saturday’s delayed season-opener in Bloomington.
For months, the Nittany Lions have been touted for owning one of the deepest running back rooms in the nation. That will now be tested sooner than anyone could have expected with Journey Brown out indefinitely with an undisclosed medical condition.
How much will this Top 10 team miss him?
That will depend on the maturity and continued health of the remaining four options. Each possesses similar, high-end potential but must make up for overall inexperience.
The position figures to be even more of a rotation now with sophomore Noah Cain listed as the starter in the first official team depth chart of the season. What will surely help: Each will work behind what should be the best offensive line since Franklin arrived in State College in 2014.
Here’s a breakdown of Penn State’s running back options:
Noah Cain, soph., 5-foot-10, 226 pounds
He became a fan-favorite immediately last year as the Lions began sorting out their crowded running back position.
He provided 100-yard games against Purdue and Iowa and was particularly effective at driving through tackles and picking up tough yards inside. He helped save the Iowa game by essentially running out the close victory in the end.
Only a mid-season ankle injury slowed him — and opened the door wide for Brown. Despite the injury, Cain broke the program’s freshman rushing touchdown record (eight) and averaged 5.3 yards per carry.
Cain does not feature Brown’s elite track speed but has reportedly “gotten faster, he’s gotten bigger” in the off-season, according to tight end Pat Freiermuth. “I’m excited for Noah to get his opportunity to go out there and shine …”
Devyn Ford, soph., 5-foot-11, 198 pounds
He’s not just the highest-rated running back in the room coming out of high school, he’s probably the most physically gifted, too.
Ford was the nation’s No. 5 running back recruit from Virginia in 2019 and quickly earned early doses of success with the Lions as a rookie.
His 81-yard touchdown run in the opener paved the way to a 107-yard day. He received glimpses of playing time the rest of the way but remained clearly behind Brown and Cain in the pecking order.
Ford seemed to run to run a bit cautious and too upright during limited action.
However, he did add much-needed weight since the Cotton Bowl and still possesses the potential to be a national standout. Expect him to get early-game work Saturday and in the follow-up against Ohio State as he tries to hold off the rookies behind him.
“Don’t count out Devyn Ford,” running backs coach JaJuan Seider said this spring. “I think this kid is so physically gifted. Man, he’s got the best hips I’ve ever seen out of a player. He can sink his hips and explode through the smallest crease.”
A hang-up could be off-season drug-related charges he faces with a few teammates. It’s unclear whether that will affect his playing time.
Caziah Holmes, frosh., 5-foot-11, 209 pounds
The Florida product came to the Lions in January with high-end speed and immediate possibilities as a returner and pass-catcher in the slot.
His role could suddenly blossom even more.
While he is being looked at to return kickoffs, he also now figures to get early chances at running back. And the early reviews have been promising. Wearing the No. 26 uniform number of idol Saquon Barkley, he pulled off a few similar moves in a recent practice that quickly lit up social media.
Keyvone Lee, frosh., 6-foot, 230 pounds
Yet another Florida product is the most inexperienced of the group. He didn’t arrive on campus until this summer and did not play football last fall after transferring high schools.
However, Lee was coveted by big-time programs for his elite combination of size, speed, athleticism and versatility. He was previously committed to play for the Florida Gators and some schools eyed him as a linebacker.
He does offer the largest build of the group but has portrayed himself in interviews as more than power, tackle-breaking runner.
Frank Bodani is a sports reporter for the York Daily Record. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @YDRPennState.