Robinson football coach Scott Vossler studied every play from Ricky Slade’s junior campaign. He saw the explosiveness on film. He witnessed Virginia high school players flail helplessly as Slade dashed through the second level. He dedicated an entire offseason to stopping the C.D. Hylton star in the teams’ 2017 season opener.
How was Robinson rewarded?
“In the first half, he caught a swing pass out of the backfield into the boundary. We had three guys over there. They had no one blocked. It should have been a 5-yard loss,” Vossler said. “Ricky reversed fields and gained 45 yards. He was the best athlete on the field, and he made the other 21 guys out there look like middle-schoolers. … He just destroyed us.”
Vossler can take solace in that Robinson wasn’t alone. Slade built a legacy in northern Virginia. His vision, power and breakaway speed led to 5,499 rushing yards, 81 touchdowns and a lasting impression, one that’s still fresh in the minds of many.
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And those who saw Slade’s demolition of high school defenses first-hand believe he’ll do the same in Happy Valley.
2019 is shaping up to be Slade’s year. The rising sophomore, after finding the end zone six times last season, is Penn State’s projected starter as the Nittany Lions near spring practice. Expectations are high, too, for the nation’s former No. 1 running back recruit. Saquon Barkley set records and became a superstar in two years at Penn State, while Miles Sanders outrushed his predecessor’s 2017 totals as a first-year starter. Now, it’s Slade’s turn to carry the program’s burgeoning RBU mantra.
First, he’ll have to fend off a host of up-and-comers. Journey Brown earned time in 2018, Notre Dame transfer CJ Holmes is eligible and perhaps flying under-the-radar, 2019 four-star signee Noah Cain is on campus, and Devyn Ford’s fall arrival is just around the bend.
But Slade’s never been someone to wilt in the face of pressure. Ask anyone in Virginia.
“He’s been groomed for this,” said Michael Fletcher, a long-time coach at Nike’s The Opening who watched Slade blossom from an early age. “He embraces his opportunity. … He’s made for this.”
Fletcher, a star safety at Oregon in the ‘90s, has worked Nike regional and national combines for the better part of two decades. He first met Slade at a showcase in Charlotte, when the back was an eighth-grade menace at Lake Ridge Middle School in Woodbridge, Va.
Fletcher is friends with high school coaches in Virginia, and he heard Slade’s name come up before. But the guru was interested in seeing what the shorter back, who now stands at 5-foot-9, could do. “Guys with that frame, you think they’re more outside zone, stretch guys,” Fletcher said. “But he embraced contact and liked to hit it up inside and get downhill. He had a throwback style.”
Fletcher kept a close eye on Slade’s development throughout high school. Slade was one of a few ninth-grade prospects to earn an invite to The Opening regionals — after an 18-touchdown campaign as a freshman.
That kind of rookie performance is not common. Really, it’s rare for a freshman to start on varsity to begin with. But C.D. Hylton head coach Tony Lilly couldn’t help himself.
When Slade trained with C.D. Hylton’s varsity squad in the summer before his freshman year, Lilly “noticed an explosion that most kids his age don’t have.” Before starting camp, Lilly told defensive coordinator David Anthes that the ninth grader might start for C.D. Hylton, a program that won 42 games in its previous four seasons. Anthes didn’t buy it.
That is, until the second play of the Bulldogs’ first scrimmage. “He went 80 yards for a touchdown,” Lilly said, laughing. “I looked to our coordinator and said, ‘Oh yeah, he’s definitely our starting tailback.’”
Slade rewarded Lilly’s conviction. The all-purpose threat tallied 1,309 yards as a freshman. In a Week 4 win over the No. 5-ranked team in the state, the 14-year-old recorded 175 rushing yards, 100 receiving yards and eight total touchdowns.
Slade’s terrorization of Virginia programs only began in 2014. The two-time all-state honoree had 1,847 yards and 20 touchdowns from scrimmage as a junior in 2016. In 2017, Slade won Gatorade Player of the Year after 35 offensive scores.
The numbers paint a clear enough picture: Slade was deserving of his consensus five-star rating. But the tales of dominance tell a more complete story — a harrowing one for opponents to relive, and a promising one for Penn State fans to latch onto.
“You want to get as many guys in the box as possible. Always be plus-one in the box. That was the plan,” said Colgan coach Steve Baudendistel, who faced Slade in 2017. “He had eight touchdowns against us. So that’s how good our defensive gameplan was.”
Added Osbourn head coach Cortez Whiting: “We got all 11 hats to the ball. But unfortunately, Ricky Slade got past all 11 hats and into the end zone. You can get to the ball and pursue all you want, but he was going to get to that end zone.”
At least Whiting knew what to expect. The Osbourn coach was a former assistant at Woodbridge High School, where he watched Slade flourish in middle school. Whiting labeled Slade a “phenom” back then. “You could see the stardom in him,” he added.
Whiting maintains that Slade will become a star at Penn State. He isn’t the only one, either.
Vossler, whose Robinson side got torched for 189 yards in the 2017 opener, said Slade is “one of the most dynamic space guys” he’s ever seen and has “the potential to be something really electrifying” at Penn State. Lilly, Slade’s coach at C.D. Hylton, said the back’s 2018 flashes convinced him that “his acceleration is definitely effective” at the Power 5 level. And Fletcher, The Opening coach who compared Slade to Minnesota Vikings starter Dalvin Cook, called the Nittany Lion “a three-down back” and someone who is “constantly churning.”
“His vision in short spaces, I mean, pros are built like that,” Fletcher added. “That’s how I judge who’s a next level type of back. … You can tell he consumes football, and he gets it. That’s a Saquon (Barkley) trait.”
Music to Penn State fans’ ears, surely.
But Slade isn’t Saquon. He isn’t Sanders or Royster, Carter or Kinlaw. Not yet, anyway.
There is, however, promise. The C.D. Hylton stories generated buzz, but it was Slade’s 27-yard scamper in Penn State’s season opener that caught fans’ attention. It was his 61-yard touchdown at Illinois that opened eyes. And it was his nasty spin-move score against Maryland that caused heads to shake.
Slade showed glimpses of perhaps what’s to come.
The casual fan in the Beaver Stadium bleachers may not have noticed the back gradually setting himself up for a breakout 2019 campaign. But those in northern Virginia saw this coming all along.
“I knew he could do it. A lot of people believe in what he can do; they’ve been watching it his whole life when he was in high school and Little League,” Whiting said. “Now he’s on a national stage, and the world will be able to see it.”