Penn State’s running back rotation has created a lot of headlines and a lot of discussion.
James Franklin and running back coach Ja’Juan Seider, have taken on the challenge of trying to rotate four starting caliber running back and give them all opportunities in the Penn State offense.
According to Seider, the process has been a learning experience, but now as the Nittany Lions head into their first real test of the season, where does the rotation stand and who do the number say about who is the top player in the Penn State backfield?
If you look at it purely on a rushing yards basis, Journey Brown leads the way with 217 yards. Noah Cain is just behind him with 208, then Devyn Ford with 198 yards and finally Ricky Slade brings up the rear with 51 rushing yards so far this season.
The rushing attempts and opportunities for the four backs have been very equal with Cain leading the way with 35 attempts, followed by Brown, Ford then Slade.
But when looking at the productivity of running backs, you can’t just look at yards and rushing attempts. So many things beyond the backs themselves determine whether a running play is going to be successful. It can depend what look the offensive line sees, maybe the play is checked to a pass, maybe it's a read option that Sean Clifford ends up pulling, and maybe a certain running back is thrown in on a fourth and short to pick up those two yards and gets a look against a crowded box.
A better measure of a running back’s success is average yards per carry and for Penn State this season, Ford leads the way.
Average yards per carry:
When looking at purely running the ball, three of the four Penn State running backs have made a statement, while one is lagging behind.
This stat isn’t without its flaws though as any average in any situation is easily skewed with outliers. For example, Ford had a 81-yard run against Idaho. His longest run the rest of the season was two 20-yard runs.
Another important factor for the four running backs in Penn State’s offense is receiving and ability to make plays in the passing game.
And so far, Slade and Brown have made the most of these opportunities both totaling seven receptions for 89 yards. Cain has 47 yards through the air and Ford only has 30.
When you combine the total rushes and total receptions for these four players you get the total number of touches which really shows the breakdown of who has received the ball the most and who has been the most effective when the ball is placed in their hands.
Cain has received the most total touches this season with 40, while Brown is right behind him with 38. Both Ford and Slade have 31. A large reason why Cain has more touches than Brown is because of Cain’s big fourth quarter against Purdue where he sparked the offense and led them to a touchdown.
The yards per touch breakdown though tells a little bit of a different story and shows a separation from three of the running backs.
Average yards per touch:
Brown, based on this statistic, has been the most productive complete player for Penn State so far this season and three of the backs have averaged more than six-yards a touch, which is very, very impressive.
While Cain hasn’t put up the most yards this season he has been by far the most consistent back on it shows on the stat sheet.
Ford was the leading rusher for Penn State against Idaho, but a big part of his 107 yards was that 81 yard touchdown. If you take that play away he has five carries for 26 yards and Cain is the leading rusher.
The same story is true in the Pitt game but with Brown. He led the team with 109-yards, but he had a 85-yard run. If you take that away, he has nine carries for 24-yards and Cain becomes the leading rusher.
Cain has yet to have a big, explosive play and don’t expect him to all season as his isn’t that type of running back. In the Purdue game, Cain finished with 105 yards and his longest rush was only 27-yards. If you take that play out of the game he would still have been the leading rusher for Penn State.
Now, stats are what they are and show production which is important, but the game of football is much more complicated than just production.
The stats say what they say, but at the end of the day it’s on the Penn State coaching staff to put out the best players to give them the best chance to win games.
And right now, the Penn State coaching staff feels that all four running backs, Brown, Cain, Slade and Ford give the team the best chance to win so that is who is going to take the field.