Five talented Penn State running backs competing to be in rotation

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Aug. 15—When John Lovett decided to leave Baylor last year as a graduate transfer, there was only one destination for the New Jersey native.

Lovett chose Penn State, what he calls "Running Back University." He watched the Nittany Lions develop Saquon Barkley, Miles Sanders and Journey Brown in recent years and liked what he heard from assistant coach Ja'Juan Seider.

Lovett knew he would face stiff competition, which he has embraced as Penn State preseason camp enters its second week.

"Pffft, there's so much talent," he said. "There's a lot of talent. We all compete every day. We push each other. All that's going to do is make everyone else better. The best man will win the job and the best man will help the team win games."

The 6-0, 209-pound Lovett, who led Baylor in rushing in three seasons (2017-19), will battle Noah Cain, Devyn Ford, Keyvone Lee and Caziah Holmes for playing time. All five of them received four stars from at least one recruiting service coming out of high school.

It's the greatest depth that Penn State has had in Seider's four seasons on the staff and the greatest the Lions have had in a long time. All but Holmes have been starters.

Seider called it a luxury for him as their position coach, not a dilemma.

"The dilemma is when you don't have that depth and one of those guys goes down," he said. "Who do you go to? I always tell them you get what you earn. If a guy is clearly better than everybody else, he's going to be the guy. If two guys are close, we gotta play them. If there's another one close, we gotta play him.

"Remember '19? We played four running backs (Brown, Cain, Ford and Ricky Slade). They all deserved to play. To me, that was the hardest job. By the grace of God, the kids made it work. This could be harder."

Penn State coach James Franklin made it clear last week that he'd ideally like to use no more than three running backs in the rotation. Interestingly, he said the Lions "have four backs we can play with," leaving it to conjecture who the odd man out might be.

"We're big believers that we're gonna play three backs," Franklin said. "I think it's hard to play four. You better have a fourth ready because one of those three will get dinged up. We're trying to figure out who the top three will be.

"I think we have one of the stronger running back rooms in the country. Ja'Juan has done a great job of coaching, developing and recruiting at that position. They're really good guys. They work well together. They challenge each other."

After Brown was forced to retire with a medical condition before last season, Cain started the opener at Indiana and suffered a season-ending injury on the first series. Seider said at Media Day earlier this month that it was a broken foot.

The 5-10, 220-pound Cain had carried high hopes after rushing for 443 yards and eight touchdowns as a freshman in 2019.

"It was very frustrating," he said. "It was a low point because I was doing everything right. I was going hard at practice every day, handling my business in school, doing all the things Coach has asked me to do.

"I just kept my faith strong. My mom, my dad, my family and my support system, they just kept me uprooted and encouraged me as well as the coaches and the training staff. It wasn't easy at all coming back from this."

Cain also suffered a high ankle sprain two years ago shortly after earning the starting job. Seider said he began camp fully recovered.

"It's good to have him back, it really is," Seider said. "He's just had bad luck. He's a kid who never got hurt before he got here. He didn't know how to handle that. Injuries happen."

Lovett rushed for 1,803 yards in four seasons at Baylor and missed three games last year with an injury.

"He's a three-down back," Seider said. "I really can say that about the whole room. He's proven. You can't take experience away from a kid."

Lee, a 6-0, 239-bruiser, gained plenty of experience last year as a freshman, including a 134-yard performance in a victory at Michigan. He finished with a team-high 438 yards and four touchdowns.

"Keyvone came into his own," Seider said. "He knew he could play in this league (Big Ten) and be a stud in this league. He can be a star in this league. He took the right steps.

"He had a great spring. One thing I wanted him to do was get faster, and he did that. We timed him at 4.46 (in the 40-yard dash). He's learned how to trust himself physically and how to make people miss."

Cain, Lovett and Lee might be the three backs in the rotation, but the 5-11, 200-pound Ford also has shown flashes.

Ford missed time last year with a high ankle sprain and finished with 274 yards and only 4.1 yards per carry. He looked better as a freshman in 2019 when he averaged 5.6 yards and gained 294 yards.

"He just has to put it together," Seider said. "His body changed. He's finally putting on weight the way you want to see it. I thought he played better than what people gave him credit for."

The 5-11, 211-pound Holmes alternated with Lee for several games last year and had 227 yards, including 77 and two touchdowns in the season finale against Illinois.

"He wanted to get in space," Seider said. "He didn't want to play that physical game. You can't hide not being physical in the Big Ten. He needed the spring. He needed hard coaching. He needed to be in that weight room. I'm really proud of the progression he made from the spring to the summer."

Two scrimmages before the Sept. 4 opener at Wisconsin will help determine the starter and the rotation.

"We're going to try to get the best guys on the field," Seider said. "Some games may dictate who's in the game. It might be a space game. It might be a downhill game. The good thing is that we have variations of backs who can do different things."