Journey to find top back should begin with Brown
Depth is great. Playing lots of guys is great. Keeping young players engaged by giving them a chance to compete for playing time is great.
Those are all good problems to have for any team. And make no mistake about it, Penn State has a good problem on its hands that there are four promising young running backs.
But at every position, there needs to be a guy. The guy. The starter who plays first and most often.
That’s how sports work. Every sport. And every position.
James Franklin says he still hasn’t determined who the top guy is at the running back position because no one has separated himself from the group.
That’s sort of hard to believe at this point — after spring ball, summer workouts, fall camp and three games — and frankly, I think there’s a lot more to it.
From my view, Journey Brown not only has looked the best so far, he also seems to have the highest upside among the four running backs.
Brown started the Pitt game, which would indicate the coaches do think he’s leading the group. He leads the team with 175 yards rushing (including an 85-yard run against the Panthers) and is tops at 8.3 yards per carry.
It’s hard to read too much into the stats at this point, given the competition and that PSU has rotated the running backs so much. It’s more of an eye test sort of thing that leads me to think Brown, a sophomore, deserves to get the bulk of carries at the start of Big Ten play.
There’s no denying that Noah Cain also has looked good, with 86 yards and four TDs on 16 carries. He had an outstanding drive leading to the go-ahead TD in the third quarter against Pitt, then shockingly didn’t get another carry the rest of the game.
Devyn Ford had an 81-yard run TD run against Idaho. That was impressive, but it also was against a terrible opponent.
Ricky Slade, the starter at the beginning of the year, has been the least effective running back so far, with just 21 yards on 12 carries.
What I truly believe has happened so far is that Franklin has been trying to keep everyone happy, not just trying to find the guy who could separate himself.
Coaches get paid to make tough decisions. I have to believe that the coaches know the difference between, say, Brown and Cain, or Slade and Ford.
To have the “Or” between all their names on the depth chart is downright silly.
But it serves a purpose. And that purpose is to make sure each of the four guys feels like he is getting a fair shake.
With the transfer portal and young players easily becoming disenchanted nowadays, the last thing a coach wants to do is lose a quality player and see him reach his potential elsewhere.
So, coaches have to play a PR political game with these players so that they continue to work as hard as possible every single day and not sulk because they’ve dropped down the depth chart.
That, more than anything else, is why I believe Franklin has yet to name the top running back and stick with him.
Cory Giger can be reached at email@example.com.