Early positional outlook: How the Penn State RBs break down

·6 min read

To say Penn State’s running game in 2021 was a disappointment would be a massive understatement. An offense with three Doak Walker Award watch list players ended the season without any player on the roster accumulating 100 rushing yards in a single game. Who would have thought that would be possible?

The struggles of the running game could be based on the struggles of the offensive line and playcalling, and perhaps a few other reasons. But heading into the 2022 season, there will be no room for excuses. The position will be in the spotlight with not so unreasonable expectations that things will improve. And once again, the makeup of the running back position will be an intriguing one for the Nittany Lions.

Here is a look at the state of the running back position in Happy Valley heading into the 2022 season, starting with the leading rusher coming back for another season.

Keyvone Lee the leader of the pack

Photo: Matthew OHaren-USA TODAY Sports

Keyvone Lee showed some glimpses of good things to come as a freshman in 2021, and he emerged to be Penn State’s leading rusher in what was clearly a rough year for the rushing offense. Lee led the Nittany Lions with 530 yards while averaging 4.91 yards per attempt on 108 attempts. Lee managed to score just two rushing touchdowns, but he will enter the spring practice season as the leading candidate to be the top running back on the depth chart in the fall.

If there is one drawback to Lee’s game that has been evident at times, it may be a reluctance to attack the line with a burst of speed. There have been some times when Lee may be waiting a bit too long for room to run, and before too long he would be swallowed up for a loss or minimal gain. That can be coachable and should be addressed in the offseason. Lee can do some damage if he takes off with more authority at times instead of trying to be too patient, which sounds weird to say as someone who respects being patient and waiting for a play to develop. But in this case, it may serve Lee well to realize quicker when a play is a lost cause.

But Lee should start the 2022 season as the top running back on the depth chart.

Say goodbye to Noah Cain

Photo: Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

After a tough 2021 season, Noah Cain decided to enter the NCAA transfer portal and explore his options. And soon after he did, Cain made a decision to move on from Penn State and join LSU. Cain will have immediate eligibility with the Tigers and could end up being a great pickup for new LSU head coach Brian Kelly. All in all, this could end up being a great move for Cain, although LSU’s running game wasn’t much better than Penn State’s in 2021.

Cain battled injury concerns during his time at Penn State, which was unfortunate given the ceiling he was expected to have. Cain rushed for 443 yards and eight touchdowns as a freshman, including back-to-back 100-yard games against Purdue and Iowa and then 92 rushing yards and two touchdowns in a Cotton Bowl victory over Memphis, a perfect complement to Journey Brown at the time.

Cain’s 2020 season ended just as it got started with what turned out to be a season-ending injury after just three rushing attempts in the season opener at Indiana. After scoring a touchdown in each of Penn State’s first three games of the 2021 season, including one against Auburn, Cain scored just one more touchdown the rest of the season.

Say hello to Nicholas Singleton

Photo: York Daily Record

Penn State’s Class of 2022 was loaded with potential stars for the next few years. Among them was one of the top recruits ever signed by James Franklin with running back Nicholas Singleton. The in-state product overpowered opponents on the high school field and he was named the Gatorade National Football Player of the Year. This is a massive addition to the Penn State roster and the expectations will be incredibly high for Singleton in Happy Valley.

The question will be just how soon Penn State makes him the focal point of the offense, if not just the running game. Even if Lee is the top back on the depth chart, it should not be taking long before Penn State offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich and head coach James Franklin find ways to get Singleton involved.

It could be very possible Singleton will end the 2022 season as Penn State’s leading rusher, but it may not be something that happens right away.

Where does Devyn Ford fit in?

Photo: Matthew OHaren-USA TODAY Sports

Not to be totally forgotten in the running back mix is Devyn Ford. Ford took a backseat in the running back picture in 2021 with Cain, Lee, and Baylor transfer John Lovett leading the rushing attack, with a healthy dose of quarterback Sean Clifford getting involved as well.

Ford appeared in nine games for Penn State in 2021 with just 14 rushing attempts for 61 yards. With the departures of Cain and Lovett, Ford could see an increased role in the offense in 2022 before Singleton is deemed ready to lead the charge.

Ford still has some good skill and potential to work with, and he clearly has had room to improve. But entering his third season, Ford could be on the verge of making a push for more of a role in the offense. Lee should still be considered the top back, and Singleton is the back of the future, but there could still be a role for Ford if he shows some improvement in the spring.

Other names to know

Photo: Matthew OHaren-USA TODAY Sports

Penn State could have some solid depth at the running back position in 2022. In addition to Lee, Singleton, and Ford, Penn State could find some ways to get the ball in the hands of Caziah Holmes, who enters his junior season. Holmes only appeared in three games last season, but he got into nine games during the nine-game 2020 season (51 rushing attempts for 227 yards and two touchdowns). Holmes will be a player to keep an eye on in the spring.

But the Class of 2022 isn’t just Singleton at the running back position. Penn State also welcomes Kaytron Allen, a four-star recruit from IMG Academy. Penn State’s running back future would look incredibly bright with Allen alone, even if the Nittany Lions didn’t land the commitment of Singleton. Allen more than has the ability to create an impact on the running game plans for the offense in the years to come. How much of Allen we will see in 2022 remains to be seen considering the options elsewhere on the roster. But the possibility of multiple years with Singleton and Allen should give Penn State fans reason to be excited about the possibilities.


Big board: Penn State's 2022 football recruiting class by position


Noah Cain is heading to the SEC

Class of 2022 RB Nicholas Singleton named Gatorade National Football Player of the Year

Kaytron Allen gives Penn State a powerful running back duo in Class of 2022

Can Nicholas Singleton be the next elite running back in Happy Valley?

2021 Penn State Nittany Lions Profile Card: Keyvone Lee

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