With Saquon Barkley off to the NFL and Charles Huff joining Joe Moorhead at Mississippi State, the Penn State running back room is in flux. While Miles Sanders is the heir apparent — and a promising one at that — it will be challenging to keep the Nittany Lions’ rushing attack moving full-steam ahead.
But James Franklin picked David Corley to be the man to make it happen, and the new running backs coach’s former players believe wholeheartedly he has what it takes.
Corley, who was hired by Penn State last week, got his start at William & Mary. A record-setting quarterback for the Tribe, Corley came back to Williamsburg, Va., in 2008 to begin his coaching career.
It was with his first crop of running backs that Corley struck a chord, and those players still remember him today. They recall his family qualities, incessant film work, postgame celebrations and positive vibes. They know Corley brought out the best in them — and they think Sanders, Ricky Slade and Penn State’s backs will one day feel the same way.
“I would run through a brick wall for him. All of us felt that way,” former William & Mary tailback Courtland Marriner said. “He just makes you want to play better. He makes you want to be better, be a better person. And that translates everywhere.”
In his first season with the Tribe, Corley — who graduated from William & Mary in 2002, just six years prior — had nine eager running backs in his room. Redshirt senior DeBrian Holmes was the oldest guy on the team; he actually played with some of Corley’s former teammates. Meanwhile, Jonathan Grimes, now an NFL veteran, was one of four freshmen.
It was an eclectic mix of backs, one Corley connected with from the get-go.
“To me, he was a player’s coach,” said Grimes, a former back with the Houston Texans and Jacksonville Jaguars. “People hear that term a lot, but he played. He actually balled, and he brought that passion and that tenacity to how he coached. You could tell that’s the kind of player he was.”
Added Holmes: “I was thinking, ‘We’ve got an ex-quarterback that’s going to be our running backs coach?’ That has to be good because he knows the offense already.”
That became obvious.
Corley made one thing crystal clear when he showed up: The running backs were going to know just as much as the quarterbacks. A former signal-caller himself, the assistant coach stressed the importance of fully understanding the big picture.
The Tribe rushers wouldn’t get by picking the A gap over the B gap. They learned why the wide receivers ran certain routes and why the offensive line blocked down or straight up.
To gain that kind of all-encompassing comprehension, hours upon hours were spent studying tape.
“He was breaking everything down to a tee, to the point where, when you got on the field, you would hear his voice in your head,” Marriner said. “The fact that he’s so funny and so personable, it made everything melt into your psyche.”
Running back Terrence Riggins, a sophomore at the time, found himself at wide receiver in the middle of a game in 2008. He had never played out wide before, but knew what to do thanks to Corley’s persistence in the film room.
Grimes credits Corley’s meticulous advice about foot placement and attentiveness for his breakout freshman campaign. Grimes — eventually William & Mary’s all-time leading rusher — tallied 929 yards and seven touchdowns, Riggins averaged 8.1 yards per carry, and Marriner chipped in 4.9 yards per tote.
It was the little details Corley drove home that made the biggest differences.
But Grimes and the guys wouldn’t have bought in — wouldn’t have immersed themselves in his teachings — if it weren’t for Corley’s infectious personality.
Riggins said he was always going “a hundred miles a minute,” and the players loved it.
“After a big win, we’d get the music blasting in the locker room,” Grimes said chuckling, “and he’s right up in there hype with us, crunk with us.”
Added Marriner: “He treated us like we were his family, like we were his little brothers. ... He was an authority, but at the same time he was looking out for your well-being at all times on and off the field.”
That bond made it especially difficult when Corley was moved from running backs to quarterbacks in 2010. Marriner, admittedly, was “pissed off.”
“It felt like he was transferring schools,” the back said. “He was like, ‘I know, I know. But I’ve got to go where I’m needed.’ That’s the type of guy he is. He doesn’t have a solo focus. He’s always thinking about ways he can help whatever organization or team he’s a part of.”
It’s for that and several other aforementioned reasons why Grimes, Marriner, Riggins and Holmes think Sanders, Slade, Journey Brown and Mark Allen will gravitate toward Corley.
When Corley first arrived at William & Mary, he captivated their attention. And by the time he moved on, he established familial bonds, a never-before-seen attention to detail and a productive rushing attack.
Corley delivered at William & Mary. And the Tribe don’t see why that would be any different at Penn State.
“Anything short of success, I’d be shocked,” Grimes said.
“They’re going to have a fun time,” Holmes added. “He’s going to get the most out of them, just like he did with us.”