Penn State Football

‘He gets yards’: How Penn State RB Noah Cain played to his strengths in Blue-White Game

Franklin impressed with freshman running back Cain

Penn State football coach James Franklin talks about freshman running back Noah Cain after the Blue-White game on April 13, 2019 at Beaver Stadium.
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Penn State football coach James Franklin talks about freshman running back Noah Cain after the Blue-White game on April 13, 2019 at Beaver Stadium.

Noah Cain popped up off the south end zone turf, jumped to headbutt 6-foot-6 lineman Rasheed Walker and performed an elaborate handshake with Sean Clifford. But that was that. The freshman back didn’t turn to the Penn State student section to revel in his second touchdown of the afternoon. Instead, he put his head down and jogged to the sideline as head coach James Franklin clapped nearby.

Cain’s celebration as Saturday’s Blue-White Game waned was relatively subdued. The 18-year-old kid who enrolled less than four months ago handled himself like a vet — and looked like one carrying the ball, too.

Cain — Penn State’s No. 3 running back entering spring practice — closed camp with a claim to snaps come the fall. The 2019 signee punched in a short-yardage score, evaded a pair of tacklers for a red-zone receiving touchdown and accounted for 58 yards (45 rushing, 13 receiving) on 14 touches. Not necessarily a crazy statline. But it was how Cain accumulated those numbers that impressed his coaches and peers.

“What Noah does a good job of is knowing who he is and playing to his strengths,” Franklin said. “What he did today was he didn’t try to be something he’s not and bounce runs to the outside and things like that. He stuck his foot in the ground, he broke arm tackles, fell forward and got positive yards. That’s a real positive.”

Added offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne: “He’s a hard guy to tackle. Arm tackles aren’t going to bring him down; that’s not going to happen. ... I was very pleased with his spring.”

When the Penn State staff recruited Cain — a four-star prospect — out of IMG Academy, they saw that decisiveness on film. So did Clemson, Georgia, Ohio State, Michigan and the other 22 programs that offered Cain. The No. 6 running back in the 2019 class, per 247 Sports, was direct in high school, recording 1,638 yards as a sophomore and later earning a comparison to two-time Pro Bowler and bruiser Alfred Morris.

Cain’s stout running style carried over in spring camp. Franklin said, after watching practice tape, the back would sometimes rush his cut — failing to let the hole open up before getting upfield. But the head coach is fine with that at this stage. He’d rather have Cain do that than flee to the sideline every time a tackler presented himself.

“A lot of his runs aren’t overly sexy,” Franklin said. He has a point. On Saturday, the freshman’s longest run went for 11 yards.

But it was Cain’s five-yard bursts and six-yard pushes that gave Beaver Stadium patrons reason to nod their heads in approval. It was Cain driving past Micah Parsons for a first down that impressed. It was tallying 41 of his rushing yards playing for the White team — running behind third-string offensive linemen, running at Yetur Gross-Matos, Robert Windsor and Antonio Shelton — that opened eyes.

Well, at least the eyes of fans and media members. The Nittany Lions saw this all spring.

“He’s a consistent runner,” Penn State linebacker Cam Brown said. “He’s good at a lot of things. Good quickness. Good vision. ... He runs well. He’s going to be good in the Big Ten.”

Ideally for the Nittany Lions, so will Ricky Slade and Journey Brown. Slade and Brown separated themselves in spring camp; the former should start, while the latter has grown in confidence this offseason.

But there’s talk among the Penn State players and coaches that the running back rotation — and that’s what it’ll likely be — could look like Georgia’s has the past couple of seasons. In 2017, the Bulldogs featured Nick Chubb, Sony Michel and De’Andre Swift. Last year, Swift and Elijah Holyfield took over as Chubb and Michel left for the NFL. When asked about that Penn State-Georgia comparison, Brown said Slade reminded him of Swift: A quick, explosive playmaker.

And Cain?

“He’s like Holyfield,” Brown said, likening the freshman to Georgia’s 215-pound bruiser. “He’s a power back. He does what he has to do. He gets yards.” Specifically, Holyfield racked up 1,018 yards and 6.4 yards per carry — fourth in the SEC among those with 150 attempts or more.

Cain not only reaching 1,000 yards, but getting that many carries as a true freshman is unlikely. But making an impact? Saturday proved he can do that.

“He’s putting himself in a position to play in games and help this team win,” Rahne said. “That’s what he wants to do, and that’s what we want him to do.”