Looking to rediscover running game's spark, Penn State turns to John Lovett
When circumstance shattered Penn State's plan for the running back position less than one quarter into the 2020 season, the Nittany Lions probably absorbed that blow better than many programs might have.
True freshman Keyvone Lee broke free as the man to carry the largest load after a few games, and finished his rookie season with 438 yards and four touchdowns on just 89 attempts. Devyn Ford and Caziah Holmes contributed as well, combining for 501 yards and five touchdowns between them.
Of all the possible outcomes following Journey Brown's medical retirement and Noah Cain's season-ending injury early in that game against Indiana, Penn State's depth at the position certainly helped the Nittany Lions avoid the kind of disaster that you might expect when you lose your best two options at any given position before the season really even starts.
But there was something missing, too.
The threat wasn't quite the same. Penn State could depend on its running game to help move the chains, but there was little chance of anyone in the Nittany Lions' backfield breaking off the kind of big run that can change a game.
Lee had six runs of at least 15 yards in 89 attempts. Holmes had two in 50 attempts. Ford had two in 66 attempts. The longest run by a Penn State running back last season was Holmes' 36-yard effort against Nebraska.
Since 2016, when the Nittany Lions won the Big Ten, Penn State's offense has almost always featured a truly explosive run game. It helps when you have talents like Saquon Barkley and Miles Sanders, but, even in 2019, the difference in big-play production was stark.
By himself, Brown had more rushes of at least 15 yards in 2019 than Penn State's running backs did in 2020, with 14 of them to show for 129 attempts. He produced runs of 33, 35, 45, 56 and 85 yards.
Penn State's offense as a whole — not just the running game — suffered from the lack of explosiveness last season, and head coach James Franklin made changes to address that, most notably by bringing in new offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich to replace Kirk Ciarrocca.
"Philosophically, I felt like it was the right thing to do to get where we want to go and play a style on offense that I think is going to be important for us to play," Franklin said shortly after that decision was announced. "Whether it's our team and what we're going to have to do to be successful on the field in terms of explosive plays, turnovers, and then obviously scoring points. Those things are the three most important things you're going to do on offense."
The addition of John Lovett is another factor.
Lovett, who played a key role for Baylor in each of his four seasons with that program, is a veteran in a running back room that offers plenty of depth, but has a dearth of experience. He missed some time for health reasons this spring, Franklin said, but was able to participate in Penn State's final spring practice.
The Nittany Lions hope he can be the key to unlock the explosive aspect of their running game that went missing in 2020.
"He can run," Franklin said. "He's got the ability to make people miss. He's got that extra gear that we need in a guy that we think can be a home run threat for us."
"I think he's going to bring some explosion to the offense," running backs coach Ja'Juan Seider said earlier this spring.
Lovett's history with chunk plays is varied. He had just one rush over 15 yards in 2020, when he played just five games and dealt with some injury problems.
In 2019, though, he had 13 rushes of at least 15 yards on 101 attempts, playing for a team that reached the Big 12 title game. He had 13 rushes of 15-plus yards combined through his first two seasons with the Bears.
It won't be up to Lovett to singlehandedly spark Penn State's running game, to be clear. Franklin said this spring that he thinks the Nittany Lions have several players in their running back room that are capable of making guys miss, and running backs are far from the only factor when it comes to breaking off big runs.
"That's part of the backs, either breaking tackles or making people miss, that is the O-line and tight ends creating space for those plays," Franklin said. "And that's also through scheme, and that's what RPO (run-pass options) are all about.
"The explosive plays in the running game will come through all of those things."
• Talk about this article inside The Lions Den
• Watch our videos and subscribe to our YouTube channel
• Learn more about our print and digital publication, Blue-White Illustrated
• Follow us on Instagram
• Like us on Facebook