Lions are more than just ‘LB U’

UNIVERSITY PARK – Penn State has been nicknamed Linebacker U for many years, but the program has churned out some great running backs.

Saquon Barkley turned in dazzling performances before he left early for the NFL two years ago, and continued his dazzling play as a rookie with the New York Giants last season.

Miles Sanders stepped into the starting tailback role last season, and he ran for 1,274 yards and nine touchdowns. Sanders left early and was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles in the second round of the NFL Draft.

Sophomore Ricky Slade, who appears to be the frontrunner for the starting tailback spot, redshirt sophomore Journey Brown and true freshman Noah Cain are looking to continue that tradition of great running backs.

It seems, though, that would bring a lot of pressure with it.

“I don’t feel any pressure,” Slade said on Penn State’s media day on Aug. 3. “For me, it’s just coming out here and doing what I love to do.”

“Just being around Miles, he’s a great guy,” Brown said. “He knows how to play around and have fun. We’re going to miss him. We love him. On the field, we learned a lot from him. When it was business time, he got serious. He got locked in. He blocked out everything, even his own mom.”

“I tell these guys the best thing that happened for you guys is Miles took it fresh off of you,” Penn State running backs coach Ja’Juan Seider said. “He had to follow Saquon. Miles always had the question ‘Can he do this? Can he do that? Is he Saquon?’ It’s hard to follow a legend. I thought (Sanders) did as good as anybody.”

How are they supposed to follow two excellent running backs?

“Go play stress-free, take care of the ball and make the routine plays,” Seider said. “Set your standards so high that you’ve got to live up to your own expectations. Enjoy the moment.”

Slade showed flashes of brilliance as a freshman, running for 257 yards on 45 carries and scoring six touchdowns in nine games. He was hampered by what he said was a high ankle sprain.

“I expect him to not only pick up where he left off from last year but also to show everybody that he can be that he can be that next great running back they put into conversation,” Brown said. “Kind of like Miles and Saquon.”

Brown was very complimentary of Slade, and they seem to get along.

When reporters were interviewing Slade on media day, Brown came over holding his phone up as if he was filming the interview.

“I think it’s a little too close to my face,” Slade said as the reporters laughed.

Brown was suspended from the team for the summer for what he said was a “violation of team rules.” He declined comment on what lead to the suspension. Star defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos was also suspended for the summer for violating team rules.

Brown, who was a record-setting running back at Meadville High School, played sparingly last season, running for 44 yards on eight carries in nine games. Brown’s speed, though, is hard to overlook and why he can’t be counted out of any running back conversation.

“I feel with my abilities and how Ricky and I push each other, we’ll both be in the conversation,” Brown said. “I feel like we’re going to be the best 1-2 combo to ever come out of here.”

Cain, who grew up in Louisiana before playing at IMG Academy in Florida, can’t be counted out of that starting role. An early enrollee, Cain impressed in the Blue-White game, running for two touchdowns and accumulating 58 total yards (45 rushing, 13 passing) on 14 touches.

Cain could be part of a three-man rotation.

“He came in here, put his head down and worked,” Slade said. “He did everything right. He’s going to be rewarded. He’s doing great as of right now.”

The 5-foot-9, 198-pound Slade, though, is expected to carry the load.

The 2017 Virginia Gatorade Player of the Year has some lofty goals. He wants to run for 1,200 yards, and he wants to go the whole season without fumbling.

Slade fumbled twice against Pitt last season on four carries on a rainy night in Pittsburgh.

“That whole game was about the elements,” Seider said. “The Penn State-Pitt game was an unbelievable environment. That was a big stage for him, and the weather didn’t help. Sometimes you’re not ready. The second fumble, I blame myself because I was trying to get him back in to get some confidence. I was proud of the way he responded the next week.”

Slade, a five-star recruit, said last season was a “humbling” experience.

“I’m not used to being on the sideline,” he said. “But I learned a lot just from sitting back and watching other guys play. It kind of made me realize to take advantage of my opportunities.”

Whoever is running the ball will be running behind one of the biggest offensive lines in program history. At least four of the five line starters weigh more than 300 pounds.

Steven Gonzalez, a 6-4, 341-pound guard, expects a lot from the running backs, and Slade in particular.

“They’re a great unit,” Gonzalez said. “Coach Seider is an excellent coach, and he has those guys ready to play every day. I expect a good year from (Slade), obviously. He has to run behind us, and we’re going to try to open as many holes as we can for him and help him have a great year.”

Brown has high expectations for the Nittany Lions, who open the season Aug. 31 at home against Idaho.

“I think we have a chance to shock people,” he said. “We have a chance to be great. The way we have prepared, you would think we’re a veteran team. It doesn’t matter if they’re a true freshman or a fifth-year senior; we’re going to be prepared and ready to play.”