Penn State’s running back rotation — one questioned periodically by fans and media members alike through the Nittany Lions’ first three games — is here to stay. At least for the time being.
Miles Sanders has seen the bulk of the carries through the non-conference slate. That’s to be expected after the five-star talent waited two years behind Saquon Barkley for his time to shine. However, he has given way to fifth-year senior Mark Allen and true freshman Ricky Slade in the early part of 2018.
Some ask, why? Why take out Sanders? The junior, who is built to withstand a larger workload at 5-foot-11, 215 pounds, is averaging 6.0 yards per carry. Only six running backs across the country with as many or more carries as Sanders’ 49 have a better average. In that regard, Sanders is bested by one Big Ten rusher: Wisconsin star and Heisman Trophy candidate Jonathan Taylor.
But head coach James Franklin, offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne and running backs coach Ja’Juan Seider have gone into each game this year with a rotation in mind. For the most part, it’s getting Allen — a shifty, change-of-pace back — in for the third or fourth series of the game while sprinkling in Slade somewhere in the first half. And Franklin likes how that system has played out so far.
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“We continue to want to rotate those guys. I think whenever you play big-time college football, you better have three backs ready that you feel like you can play with,” the head coach said at his Tuesday press conference. “The other thing that’s going to factor in there is keeping our guys fresh for the fourth quarter and keeping our guys fresh throughout the season.”
Franklin also noted that as games progress, the preset plan may change. Adjustments might be necessary. But through three games, it seems like the coaching staff has not deviated from the rotation even when situations may call for a change.
For example, down 10-7 against App State with a minute to go in the first half, Allen stayed on the field for a third-and-3 from the Mountaineers’ 14-yard line. The 5-foot-6, 184-pound back was stuffed for no gain. One week later, in a hostile, sloppy environment at Pitt, Slade made a freshman mistake, fumbling in a one-point game in the second quarter. In hindsight, Sanders’ presence might have made a difference in those spots.
But there have been positives, too. Slade burst through App State’s front-seven in the opener for a 27-yard touchdown run. Against Kent State, Allen rushed for 62 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries.
Meanwhile, Sanders, who has averaged 16.3 carries per game, has not complained about the rotation or a lack of bell-cow back usage. For reference, Barkley averaged 18.1 carries over the course of 2016 and 2017.
It would not be surprising, though, to see Sanders’ usage increase in the coming weeks. While Franklin insists the rotation will continue, he did concede that “as the season goes on, some games there will be more rotation than others.”
With the Big Ten slate here — as the Nittany Lions travel to Illinois on Friday before hosting Ohio State next weekend — it’ll be interesting to see how those snap shares work out. Sanders is the guy, and against the likes of the Buckeyes, Michigan and Wisconsin, he might be leaned on more than his fellow backfield mates.
In the meantime, though, Allen and Slade are going to keep pushing for time.
“Whenever we get an opportunity, we take advantage of it,” the fifth-year senior said. “You have to play like you’re the starter and take advantage of all the reps that you get.”