Penn State assistant coach Ja’Juan Seider didn’t try to pretend figuring out the running back rotation was easy.
He couldn’t sleep at the start of the season, staying up wondering if he struck the right balance among his four underclassman running backs. “It was kicking my butt,” Seider acknowledged. He’d bounce his thoughts off offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne, then head coach James Franklin, and then the rest of the staff.
Did they see what he saw? Was he missing something? Should someone else get a few more touches?
“I want to say it’s better now than it was the first couple weeks,” Seider said Wednesday afternoon during a conference call with reporters. “But, right now, we all kind of see it in the same way, which is a good thing. It’s a testament to those kids.”
The Nittany Lions’ running back room is among the most unique in the country. With four players splitting time — in an offense that doesn’t routinely employ “20” personnel, with two backs — touches remain at a premium, especially among such young talent. Ricky Slade, a sophomore, was the nation’s No. 1-rated all-purpose back coming out of high school. True freshmen Devyn Ford and Noah Cain were both ranked among the nation’s top-10 backs, and redshirt sophomore speedster Journey Brown once broke the 100-meter PIAA record held by former Olympic gold medalist Leroy Burrell.
With past talent like Saquon Barkley, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2018 NFL draft, and Miles Sanders — a second-rounder in 2019 — Happy Valley is again becoming a destination for elite talent at the position. And that poses an interesting dilemma for Penn State’s second-year running backs coach.
After all, he has four deserving players — but just one football.
“That’s the million dollar question every week,” Seider said, referring to how he’ll spread out playing time among the quartet. “It’s been difficult. It’s been difficult for all of us because the kids earned the right to play.”
Brown and Slade remain the top-two backs here. Slade had the edge in the spring, but Brown closed the gap during fall camp. “If everybody remembers last year, we talked about (Brown) and I said he’s a track kid learning how to play football,” Seider said. “Now, he’s a football player playing football.”
One important fall scrimmage vaulted Slade over Brown. But, in Week 3, Brown earned the start — and leads all Penn State backs with 175 rushing yards. He’s followed by Ford (117), Cain (86) and Slade (21).
Seider pulled Slade during the Buffalo game after a fumble — not because of the mistake but because of Slade’s body language. According to Seider, despite the meager stats, that is the only thing that disappointed him so far about the back. But Slade has since held his head high.
“A lot of times we get too caught up in who’s hot and who’s not,” Seider said. “And sometimes you watch a kid play, and it’s not that person’s fault he’s in the game. Sometimes you run the ball and it isn’t always the ball-carrier — guys up front; sometimes you got to tip your hat to the defense.”
With such little separation between the No. 1 and No. 4 backs on the depth chart, and with backs not named Cain sharing similar body types, weekly game plans haven’t been easy to form.
That’s why Seider said he makes it a point to remain transparent, so his room is never taken by surprise. Players don’t need to be reminded that a bad day at practice could mean a lost opportunity. And his position room is still young; there’s still a lot left to be implemented.
At one of his past stops, at West Virginia, for example, Seider boasted the enviable “problem” of having four NFL-caliber backs on his roster. In some cases there, a back lined up in the slot — or the offense would often utilize two RBs in the backfield.
Penn State hasn’t reached that point offensively yet. Can those young backs pick up the blitz with “20” personnel? Are they comfortable with motion?
“Some stuff you want to hold back a little bit and then bring it out when you need it so that’s a big part of our offense going forward,” Seider said. “We have to see how much these young running backs can handle.”
That’ll come in time. For now, Seider reminded, Penn State is only three games into the season with two true freshmen and two sophomores in the backfield. A lot can change — and Seider is counting on that.
His nights aren’t nearly as sleepless these days. But juggling four backs still isn’t easy, and that competitive room hopes to make Seider’s decisions as difficult as possible every week.
“Oh, it’s hard, man,” Seider said with a slight chuckle. “I can’t even sugarcoat it.”