Editors Note: This is the second installment of the Collegian Football Staff's 2019 position preview. Check out the quarterback preview here.
Over the past couple of seasons, James Franklin has had the luxury of being secure at the running back position.
However, with the departures of Saquon Barkley and Miles Sanders after the 2017 and 2018 seasons respectively, the Nittany Lions will have some new faces in the backfield this year.
Ricky Slade — who emerged as a factor early and finished the last season listed as Sanders' primary backup — is the likely favorite to secure the starting spot at running back. His freshman campaign featured 257 yards and six touchdowns on just 45 carries, averaging nearly six yards per rush. Slade’s best game of the year came against Illinois, in which he ran for 94 yards and two touchdowns in Penn State’s rout of the Illini.
While Slade will begin the year as the starter, there are a few guys behind him who will push for playing time, most notably in the form of Journey Brown and true freshman Noah Cain.
Brown had a limited role as a redshirt freshman last season, but the young running back has excellent speed and the potential to make big plays anytime he touches the ball.
Cain was one of the premier running back recruits in the nation and enrolled early at Penn State. The 5-foot-10 freshman impressed this spring, culminating in a standout performance in the Blue-White game.
In one way or another, expect this trio of talented players to see some sort of action on the field this fall.
However, the tandem won’t be alone in the backfield. The other running backs listed on the roster include freshman Devyn Ford, and redshirt junior Nick Eury.
Eury has only appeared in one game in his college career, but it’s possible that the fourth-year man could be placed on special teams. Despite not making a mark with his running ability in Division I, Eury did return one punt and two kickoffs for touchdowns as a senior in high school.
Much like Cain, Ford was a highly recruited player coming out of high school. Listed as one of the top-10 running backs in the country receiving offers from Virginia Tech, Arizona, Auburn and Clemson, Ford chose to join an already crowded backfield in Happy Valley.
The freshman is a versatile, big-play threat with an ability to get through the hole quickly.
It remains to be seen if these two will see consistent playing time over the likes of Slade, Brown and Cain, but it is very likely that they will see game action in some capacity this season.
With all of the talent and depth that Penn State currently has at the position, this could be the start of a multi-year run where James Franklin — and the rest of the Nittany Lions’ coaching staff — could use as many as four, or even five running backs in a single game.