A look back at Penn State football's multi-running back recruiting classes
Penn State head coach James Franklin and the Nittany Lions needed just two weeks to land verbal commitments from two of the nation's top eight running back prospects in Nicholas Singleton and Kaytron Allen.
With the verbal commitment of IMG Academy’s Kaytron Allen to the Nittany Lions last week, the Penn State football program welcomed its second four-star running back to its Class of 2022.
Along with Nicholas Singleton, Rivals No. 124-ranked prospect in the Class of 2022 and the eighth-best running back, Allen’s No. 118 national ranking and his place at No. 6 among all running backs puts the Nittany Lions in a unique recruiting territory. With two of the top 10 backs in the class presently committed to the program, only Alabama’s pledges of Emmanuel Henderson (No. 4) and Le’Veon Moss (No. 12) come close to matching the Lions’ haul at the position.
The effort in bringing in at least two running backs in one class is not one completely unfamiliar to the Penn State football program, however.
Along with the famed recruiting Class of 1991 in which head coach Joe Paterno landed the likes of Ki-Jana Carter, Stephen Pitts, Mike Archie, Brian King, and J.T. Morris, all considered prep All-Americans, Penn State has more recently landed on a recruiting strategy in which two-back classes have become something of the norm.
Having just brought in Keyvone Lee and Caziah Holmes in the Class of 2020, in fact, Penn State head coach James Franklin explained the current mindset of the program and that of the competitors it is welcoming at the position.
“(You’re getting guys) that embrace competition,” Franklin told reporters during his December 2019 Signing Day press conference. “They're not going somewhere looking for kind of an easy path. They want to come in and compete.”
He continued, acknowledging the second major contributor to the program’s philosophy in bringing in more than one top running back in the class. Considering the wear and tear sustained at the position, Franklin also pointed out the benefit of having players reach the next level with less mileage on their bodies
Putting those elements together, Franklin said the appeal of joining Penn State’s running backs room is something he expected to continue to build in coming years.
“I think we're building a reputation. (If) we keep going in this trajectory, there could be people in a couple of years talking about us as RBU,” he said. “I love it. I love when guys never ask you about the depth chart during the recruiting process.
“Guys understand, if you're going to go to a school that you want to compete at the highest level for conference championships, for National Championships, and all those types of things, you're going to have to compete wherever you go. The top programs are recruiting the best players in the country year after year after year, and if you expect to compete in the NFL, then you'd better learn to compete on a college campus. I love that guys are embracing that and not fearing that.”
Skipping out on adding any running backs in the Class of 2021, the Nittany Lions have returned to the well with the verbals of Singleton and Allen in the Class of 2022.
Here’s a look back at Penn State’s other two- or three-running back recruiting classes in the past 20 years:
Class of 2003: Tony Hunt - Rodney Kinlaw - Austin Scott
Penn State’s first multi-back class of the Rivals era, the Nittany Lions and head coach Joe Paterno found one of its most productive backs ever among the group.
Headlined by four-star Austin Scott, the Allentown native’s career reached its apex during the 2007 season only to see it unravel due to off-field issues.
Tony Hunt, meanwhile, found the most success as a Nittany Lion and later in an NFL career. Emerging during the 2006 season as a senior, Hunt led the Nittany Lions with 1,386 yards and 11 touchdowns on 277 carries, capping a career that finished with 3,320 yards and 25 rushing touchdowns, 88 receptions, and three receiving touchdowns. Hunt remains the Nittany Lions’ fourth all-time career rusher behind Evan Royster, Saquon Barkley, and Curt Warner.
Rodney Kinlaw, meanwhile, overcame injuries early in his career to break out in the second half of his senior season in Scott’s absence. His 1,329 yards rushing in 2007, complemented by 10 touchdowns, checks in at 10th for single-season rushing yardage in program history.
Class of 2006: Brent Carter - Evan Royster - Travis McBride
The 6-foot-3, 205-pound Brent Carter was the headliner of the 2006 three-man running back class for the Nittany Lions, checking in as a Rivals four-star ranked No. 128 overall and No. 18 among the nation’s RBs.
But it was Evan Royster, a three-star ranked No. 26 nationally, who proved to be the most productive running back in Penn State history.
Finishing his career with 686 rushing attempts, Royster leads the Nittany Lions all-time in carries and rushing yards with 3,932 yards. Highlighted by his 2008 season in which he finished with 191 carries for 1,236 yards and 12 touchdowns, Royster duplicated, then tripled the feat by notching 1,169 yards in 2009 and another 1,014 yards rushing in 2010. Royster remains the only Nittany Lion to eclipse 1,000 yards rushing in three seasons in his career.
After beginning his career at Penn State, Travis McBride transferred to the California University of Pennsylvania.
Class of 2010: Silas Redd - Zach Zwinak
A four-star out of Stamford, Conn., Redd played backup to Royster during the 2010 season then jumped into the limelight as a sophomore, collecting 1,241 yards and seven touchdowns to lead the Nittany Lions in 2011. The 13th-best single-season rushing effort in program history proved to be an appetizer to the main course that would never arrive, though, the Jerry Sandusky scandal and its fallout prompting Redd to bolt for Southern Cal weeks before the start of the 2012 season.
In his absence, the four-star fullback Zach Zwinak stepped to the forefront for the Nittany Lions as the program’s lead running back for head coach Bill O’Brien. Hitting 1,000 yards rushing during Penn State’s tumultuous 2012 season, Zwinak followed the effort with 989 yards and 12 touchdowns on 210 carries in 2013 despite splitting carries with Akeel Lynch and Bill Belton.
Class of 2014: Johnathan Thomas - Mark Allen - Nick Scott
A class inherited by James Franklin in his first season with the Nittany Lions, still impacted by the NCAA’s sanctions, Penn State’s three-RB Class of 2014 did not produce a leading rusher in the group.
It did, however, find a captain in Nick Scott.
Beginning his career as a running back, Scott’s redshirt season included 30 carries for 133 yards and a touchdown, four receptions for 43 yards, and two completed passes, including one for a touchdown. They’d be the last recorded offensive stats of his Penn State career, switching to safety for the Nittany Lions ahead of the 2016 season as another *ahem* standout running back rocketed into the program’s lore.
A four-year contributor, Mark Allen’s career-best performance came in a 62-yard, one-touchdown effort against Kent State during the 2018 season. In 30 games played, he finished with 89 carries for 350 yards and four scores.
Johnathan Thomas, meanwhile, appeared sparingly in four seasons, also breaking out for a career-high performance with three carries for 84 yards and a touchdown in the same Kent State game.
Class of 2016: Saquon Barkley - Andre Robinson
The No. 117-ranked player in the Class of 2015 according to Rivals, Saquon Barkley very quickly staked his claim as the program’s best back in preseason camp of his true freshman year. He wouldn’t look back, setting a freshman record with 1,076 rushing yards out of the gate, then ultimately leaping to second in career rushing yardage behind Royster with 3,843 yards on 671 carries in his three-year career.
Barkley’s 1,496 rushing yards in 2016 still ranks fifth all-time at Penn State, backed up by his 1,271-yard effort as a junior in 2017 before declaring early for the NFL Draft. Dominating Penn State’s record books, Barkley remains Penn State’s all-time rushing touchdown leader with 43, all-time touchdowns leader with 53, and all-time all-purpose yards leader with 5,538 in his three seasons.
Drafted second overall by the New York Giants in April 2018, Barkley is preparing for his fourth season in the NFL after suffering an ACL injury early last year.
The second back in the class, the three-star Andre Robinson out of Harrisburg’s Bishop McDevitt saw action as a redshirt freshman and sophomore in 2016 and ’17 before transferring out of the program.
Class of 2019: Devyn Ford - Noah Cain
The No. 1-rated all-purpose back in the Class of 2019, Devyn Ford finished second in the final Rivals100 to only linebacker Brandon Smith by one slot at No. 39 and No. 40, respectively. Noah Cain, meanwhile, was the nation’s No. 3-rated running back and a four-star himself, checking in close behind at No. 43 nationally.
Ahead of the 2021 season, they’re both vying to emerge as the top option in Penn State’s crowded running backs room.
Injured on the first series of the Nittany Lions’ first offensive possession of the doomed 2020 season, Cain has so far accumulated 456 rushing yards and eight scores on 87 career carries, the overwhelming majority coming during his breakout 2019 campaign.
Fighting for opportunities among Penn State’s talented backs, Ford’s career has now included 119 carries for 568 yards and six scores over 18 games in two seasons. Absent for three games in 2020, Ford finished third on Penn State’s rushing chart for the season behind Keyvone Lee and quarterback Sean Clifford.
Class of 2020: Keyvone Lee - Caziah Holmes
Both rated as Rivals four-stars, Lee made a splash in his first season at Penn State with 89 carries for 438 yards and four touchdowns. Climbing the Nittany Lions’ depth chart as a result of the career-ending loss of Journey Brown, Cain’s early-season injury, and Ford’s absence due to a death in the family, Lee’s breakout came with his 134 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries in Penn State’s first win of the season at Michigan in November. Earning double-digit carries in each of Penn State’s final four games, Lee’s contributions helped end a five-game skid that began the 2020 campaign.
Similar to Lee, Holmes was catapulted into action by Penn State’s adversity at the position last season, Holmes also appeared regularly as a true freshman. His 12 carries for 77 yards and two scores in the Nittany Lions’ season-ending win against Illinois marked a high point for Holmes as he heads into his sophomore effort.
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