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Lions’ RB competition should be fun to watch

What position are you most curious about this season?

The answer to today’s question is obviously the new starting quarterback, but I’ve written like 27 stories about Sean Clifford leading up to the season, so let’s go in a different direction here.

My original pick was the wide receivers, in large part because I think Justin Shorter is going to be a star — in college and also possibly in the NFL someday.

But Neil selected first in our topic and took the receivers, so I’ll go with the running backs.

The “or” group.

Penn State’s season-opening depth chart has four running backs essentially listed as first-teamers. Here’s how it looks officially:

Ricky Slade OR

Journey Brown OR

Noah Cain OR

Devyn Ford

Why would James Franklin do this? He pointed out Slade will start Saturday against Idaho but noted all four running backs will play this season. And depending on matchups or game plans, it sounds as if any one of them could start at some point.

If the competition truly is that close, then the Nittany Lions have four promising young tailbacks who could do big things. Slade and Brown are sophomores, while Cain and Ford are freshmen.

Let the competition continue to play out during the season, keep all four guys engaged and in the mix and see which one ultimately separates himself on the field.

That sort of depth is a great problem to have, especially if someone gets hurt, which is always a possibility that comes with the position.

Most old-school football folks grew up with and are fans of the one running back system. It’s given us NFL superstars over the years, legendary names such as Sanders, Payton, Dickerson, Campbell, Dorsett, Emmitt Smith, Franco Harris, the list goes on and on. Maybe Saquon Barkley will be at or near the top of that list someday.

The reality in today’s football, though, is you need multiple running backs because the position is the epitome of football’s “next man up” mantra. Guys’ bodies take a beating when they run the ball, they’re going to get banged up at some point, and you need others who can step up and handle the challenge.

Yes, there typically is a dropoff in talent from the starter to the backup, and from the backup to the third-stringer, and so on. But football analytics increasingly show that going from the starter to a backup at running back usually doesn’t create a big statistical differential.

It has become, for lack of a better phrase, a plug-and-play position.

It’s a big plus when a team has great depth at tailback, and Penn State appears to have that heading into the season, based on all the “or” words on the depth chart.

So these guys should be fun to watch as they battle it out to see who gets the most carries and in what situations.

Now, can PSU’s offensive line open up holes for all the running backs? Ummm … we’ll save that discussion for another week.

Cory Giger can be reached at cgiger@altoonamirror.com.

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