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Bracketology: Penn State’s Best Running Backs

In light of the talk of Saquon Barkley’s place amongst the elite running backs, we decided to go back and see where he ranked in Happy Valley.


Forget Linebacker U: Penn State should be running back U. With a plethora of excellent running backs throughout Nittany Lion football history, where does Saquon Barkley rank? We’ll find out, as we have Black Shoe Diaries readers vote on who the best is!

How did we seed the running backs for this bracket? BSD staff ranked the backs 1-16, and those rankings were averaged out. As with most brackets, the first round sees the top seed take on the sixteenth, the second take on #15, and down to 8 vs. 9.

Vote here!

Matchup 1 - #1 John Cappelletti vs #16 Eric McCoo

RB Average Rank Highest Rank Lowest Rank
RB Average Rank Highest Rank Lowest Rank
Cappelletti 2.82 1 (4 votes) 8 (1 vote)
McCoo 16 16 (11 votes) 16 (11 votes)

Of course the top seed goes to Penn State’s only Heisman winner. John Cappelletti played behind two other names on this list in 1970 and 1971 before taking over starting duties in 1972; his senior season, though, saw the Lions go undefeated behind Cappie’s 5.32 yards per carry, and he won, in addition to the Heisman, the Maxwell Award, and the Walter Camp Award, in addition to being an All-American. He was drafted by the LA Rams in he first round in 1974, 11th overall.

He’s up against a New Jersey native who played his way into the then-top ten all time rushing at Penn State after starting all four years, not a bad feat when you consider two of his four seasons were some of the worst in PSU history in 2000 and 2001. Eric McCoo was part of the uber talented 1999 squad, and eventually went undrafted in 2002 but spent a year in each of the Chicago and Philly organizations.

Matchup 2 - #9 DJ Dozier vs #8 Blair Thomas

RB Average Rank Highest Rank Lowest Rank
RB Average Rank Highest Rank Lowest Rank
Dozier 9.18 4 (1 vote) 12 (2 votes)
Thomas 8.55 6 (3 votes) 12 (1 vote)

DJ Dozier was a two-sport star that holds a special place in PSU football history - he’s the player that scored the game-winning touchdown in the 1987 Fiesta Bowl, giving the Nittany Lions their second national championship. One of many All-Americans on that squad, Dozier was drafted in the first round by the Vikings (14th overall) and played four seasons in the NFL before switching to baseball for one season with the Mets.

Dozier passed the torch to his backup in that title game and now opponent in this first round matchup. Blair Thomas was the starter for the Lions in 1987 and 1989 (he suffered a season ending knee injury in the 1988 season, so redshirted) and was an integral part of Penn State’s bowl win over BYU following his senior year, and was named MVP in both that game and the senior bowl. When he graduated, he was second on the all-time rushing list, and was the first player to rush for more than 1300 yards in two straight seasons. A member of the PA Sports Hall of Fame, Thomas was drafted in the first round - second overall - by the New York Jets; he spent 6 years in the NFL at five different teams.

Matchup 3 - #5 Larry Johnson vs #12 Evan Royster

RB Average Rank Highest Rank Lowest Rank
RB Average Rank Highest Rank Lowest Rank
Johnson 5.55 1 (1 vote) 11 (1 vote)
Royster 10 4 (1 vote) 13 (3 votes)

Before his name became borderline anathema to many Penn Staters, Larry Johnson Jr was a one-season starter wonder in the blue and white, having split time with McCoo for much of his career. All he ended up doing when the job was his was rush for over 2k yards (to date, the only PSU back to do so) and become a Heisman Finalist, All-American, All-Big Ten back who won the Maxwell, Walter Camp, and Doak Walker awards. Johnson still holds the top four single game rushing records; he was drafted in the first round (27th overall) by the Kansas City Chiefs. He spent a total of 9 seasons in the league at four different teams and was a two-time pro-bowler.

He’s up against Penn State’s all time leading rusher in terms of career yards. Evan Royster, who some may not know played lacrosse before coming to PSU, redshirted his first season before being Rodney Kinlaw’s primary backup in 2007. He solidified his starting status as a sophomore, a role he would not relinquish for the rest of his career. Royster was named to the 2nd team All-Big Ten squad following the 2008 conference championship season, and was drafted in the 6th round (177th overall) by the Washington Redskins, where he stayed for four seasons.

Matchup 4 - #13 Tony Hunt vs #4 Curt Warner

RB Average Rank Highest Rank Lowest Rank
RB Average Rank Highest Rank Lowest Rank
Hunt 11.55 8 (1 vote) 13 (4 votes)
Warner 3.73 1 (1 vote) 6 (2 votes)

When he left Happy Valley following the 2006 season, Tony Hunt was the 2nd all time leading career rusher in program history, having wallowed in the offensive quagmire that was the 2003 and 2004 seasons (when he shared time with Austin Scott) before posting back-to-back 1k seasons his junior and senior years. Hunt was the MVP of the senior bowl and Outback Bowl before being drafted in the 3rd round (90th overall) by the Eagles.

The only player to be ahead of Hunt in the career list when he graduates is his opponent in this matchup. Curt Warner was an integral part of the varied offensive attack that led Penn State to their first national title in 1982. He ran for over 100 yards in 18 games in his PSU career, averaged over five yards per carry over the course of his four seasons, and was a two-time All American before being drafted in the first round (3rd overall) by the Seahawks, where he spent seven years.

Matchup 5 - #3 Ki-Jana Carter vs #14 Pete Mauthe

RB Average Rank Highest Rank Lowest Rank
RB Average Rank Highest Rank Lowest Rank
Carter 3.64 1 (3 votes) 10 (1 vote)
Mauthe 14.09 13 (1 vote) 15 (2 votes)

Ki-Jana Carter’s Penn State career could arguably be summed up by the first play of the 1995 Rose Bowl. One of the few Nittany Lions under Paterno to not utilize all four years of eligibility, Carter’s 1539 yards his final year is still third on the single season rushing charts; he finished that year 2nd in Heisman voting, and a consensus All-American, losing many awards to Heisman winner Rashaan Salaam, the fourth player to rush for over 2k yards in a season. Carter got the last laugh, though, being taken first overall in the 1995 draft by the Bengals; Salaam went 21st overall.

His opponent is one that not many PSUers know of; Pete Maute was one of the first backs in Nittany Lion football history, having played for the team from 1909-1912. He was an integral part of the undefeated 1909, 1910 and 1912 seasons and a team captain for the squad his final year, which played by rules that many today may not recognize. He’s been a member of the College Football Hall of Fame since 1957.

Matchup 6 - #11 Lenny Moore vs #6 Curtis Enis

RB Average Rank Highest Rank Lowest Rank
RB Average Rank Highest Rank Lowest Rank
Moore 9.91 1 (1 vote) 14 (2 votes)
Enis 6.91 3 (1 vote) 10 (2 votes)

Lenny Moore was one of the first great Penn State backs of the modern era, and is called by some the best PSU back ever. Nicknamed the Reading Rambler as a teen, Moore averaged over 6 yards per carry in Happy Valley before being drafted in the first round (9th overall) in the 1956 draft by the then-Baltimore Colts. Moore would stay with the Colts for 12 years, going to the Pro Bowl seven times and winning two Super Bowls.

His opponent in this matchup was an under-regarded, in this blogger’s opinion at least, back out of Ohio. Curtis Enis played just three seasons at Penn State, having gone pro after his junior season, and had back-to-back seasons of over 1200 yards. A consensus All-American, Enis is still fifth on the career rushing list even after just three seasons; he was drafted in the first round, fifth overall, in the 1998 draft by the Bears, where he played for three seasons before going to the Browns and suffering a career-ending injury.

Matchup 7 - #7 Lydell Mitchell vs #10 Franco Harris

RB Average Rank Highest Rank Lowest Rank
RB Average Rank Highest Rank Lowest Rank
Mitchell 7.09 2 (1 vote) 13 (1 vote)
Harris 9.27 3 (1 vote) 12 (1 vote)

Lydell Mitchell was part of the undefeated 1969 Penn State squad, and still holds the career rushing touchdowns and single season touchdown records for the Nittany Lions. While playing for the blue and white, Mitchell’s squads only lost a combined four games; his senior single season yardage of 1,567 wasn’t broken until Carter came to Happy Valley, and is still third in the record books. He was an All-American and Heisman finalist before being drafted by the Baltimore Colts in the 2nd round (48th overall) in 1972; he spent six years with the Colts, and nine years overall in the league.

He’s up against his former teammate and lead blocker Franco Harris. Before becoming an NFL superstar, Harris is tied for fifth in the record books for touchdowns in a single game (with Mitchell, Carter, Cappelletti, Johnson, and Barkley). Over the course of his PSU career, Harris averaged over five yards per carry and led the team in scoring his junior season. Drafted in 1972 in the first round (13th overall) by the Steelers, Harris spent 12 seasons in Pittsburgh, a nine-time Pro Bowler, four time Super Bowl champ and Super Bowl IX MVP.

Matchup 8 - #15 Richie Anderson vs #2 Saquon Barkley

RB Average Rank Highest Rank Lowest Rank
RB Average Rank Highest Rank Lowest Rank
Anderson 14.45 12 (2 votes) 15 (9 votes)
Barkley 3.27 1 (1 vote) 5 (3 votes)

Maryland native Richie Anderson didn’t break out until the latter half of his redshirt sophomore year, and he broke out en force. He ended up turning pro after his junior year after finishing then-second on the single season rushing touchdowns list with 18. One of many a long list of running backs who returned kicks, Anderson’s yards per carry weren’t as gaudy as his fellow backs on this list, but he was darn efficient, averaging a touchdown per eleven or so attempts on the ground. Anderson was drafted in 1993 in the sixth round (144th overall) by the Jets, where he stayed for 10 years; he went on to coach in the NFL for the Jets, Cardinals and Chiefs.

He’s up against a player who also had 18 rushing touchdowns in his best season so far - current starting running back Saquon Barkley. Barkley’s best may yet to be ahead of him as he enters his true junior season, but he’s already tied at tenth on the career rushing touchdowns list with 10, and he’s only 246 yards away from tenth on the career yardage list - and only 1,361 yards away from first place on that list. A vaunted workout warrior and the returning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, Barkley is getting incredible preseason Heisman hype and the ceiling for him is high - even if he chooses to depart after only one more season.

Round one will end on August 2 with winners announced on the 3rd. Round 2 will end on August 15 with the winners announced on August 16. The semifinals will end on August 22 with the finalists announced the next day, and the final matchup will finish tallying votes on August 29.

Vote here!