Two years ago, a burgeoning back took the reins of Penn State’s offense, sprinting toward the national spotlight and establishing himself as one of the country’s best rushers. All the while, there was a five-star true freshman waiting in the wings, chipping in here and there but mostly waiting his turn.
Sound familiar? It does to James Franklin.
Penn State’s 2018 running back situation looks a lot like 2016. When Saquon Barkley guided the Nittany Lions to a Big Ten title, Miles Sanders spelled the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year. Now, it’s Sanders’ show, and Ricky Slade is guest starring.
Slade — like Sanders, the No. 1 running back in his recruiting class — will play as a true freshman. Only Slade might get more opportunities than Sanders did in 2016.
“I think it’s similar in a lot of ways,” Franklin said, comparing Slade’s situation with Sanders’ two years ago. “(Slade’s) making an argument for himself. He really is. I would think by the midpoint of the season, if not earlier, he’s got a chance to make a move.”
It should be said, unless injuries hamper Sanders or ball security becomes a problem, Slade will not become the bell-cow back this year. That would be a bit much. But the freshman has a real chance to become Sanders’ primary backup.
Slade currently sits third on Penn State’s depth chart behind veteran Mark Allen. For reference, Sanders was fourth, buried below Barkley, Andre Robinson and Allen, leading up to the 2016 opener against Kent State. Sanders went on to out-rush Robinson and Allen and average 7.4 yards per carry. Slade — who rushed for 1,978 yards and 30 touchdowns as a senior at C.D. Hylton High School (Va.) as a senior — can do the same in 2018.
Sanders said Slade “has the speed and everything,” while Franklin noted that “he doesn’t necessarily look like a freshman back.” New Penn State running backs coach Ja’Juan Seider compared Slade to Florida running back Malik Davis — Seider’s protege who ran for 526 yards and averaged 6.65 yards per carry in seven games as a true freshman in 2017.
“He was on pace to maybe have a 1,000-yard season until he got hurt in the Georgia game,” the former Gators coach said of Davis. “They’re very similar. They have the natural movement. They have no wasted motion. They’ve got that ability to see the defender before the defender sees them. You’re really born with that gift.”
Added Franklin: “He’s not going to do things like Saquon that wow you. But he’s gonna have these little subtle moves that get people off-balance, then he runs through an arm tackle, lowers his shoulder and still makes people miss, but it’s more subtle. He’s just so efficient with his moves.”
So, Slade is talented. But what does he need to work on? For the average freshman running back, two things stand out: The playbook and pass protection. Slade is further along in pass protection than Franklin and his staff previously anticipated, while already grasping the ins and outs of Penn State’s playbook.
Johnathan Thomas, a fifth-year senior reserve running back, was Slade’s roommate during fall camp, a typical veteran-rookie pairing. Thomas, when asked about what Slade does best, raved about the freshman’s desire to know everything and anything. After the dog day practices of August, the two got dinner and went back to their room to study the playbook for at least 20 minutes every night.
“He would want to learn,” Thomas said. “That speaks a lot about him. ... It makes the whole (running back) room better.”
And in 2018, it’s going to make the Nittany Lions’ offense better.
It will take more than Sanders to replace Barkley, the No. 2 overall pick in this year’s draft. Allen believes a group effort from the running back room will be enough to keep Penn State’s attack operating at the same level as 2016 and 2017. But Slade might turn out to be the difference-maker, the guy who can help Sanders make up for that lost production.
At the very least, Slade will have a role in Saturday’s opener against Appalachian State. Where his 2018 season goes from there is up to him and the coaching staff.
“You’re gonna see Ricky Slade at some point in this game,” Seider said. “Don’t know when. It’s when we feel comfortable throwing him in there.”