Saquon Barkley is off to the NFL following three years of jaw-dropping moments, ending a thrilling era for Nittany Lions fans. However, Penn State’s backfield remains well-stocked heading into 2018. The unit will feature two former five-star prospects, a playmaking senior, and perhaps on of the flat-out fastest running backs in the nation. Let’s take a close at what to expect of Penn State’s running back unit in 2018.
Miles Sanders (Jr.)
Sanders entered Penn State as an incredibly decorated recruit, named the top running back in his class, top player in Pennsylvania, and an offer in-hand from every major program you can name. He has gained experience in his first two years in Happy Valley, but his carries were low for a player of his stature as he sat and waited behind Barkley, who rarely came off the field. However, Sanders is now poised to take over as the feature back in Penn State’s dynamic offense.
Sanders has shown flashes of potential in his limited opportunities, but will need to learn to be more careful with the ball. Sanders rushed for 184 yards on 25 carries with one touchdown as a freshman in 2016. As a sophomore, he saw a slight improvement with 184 yards and two touchdowns, but his yards per carry dipped slightly from 7.4 to 6.2.
While the stat lines were similar, Sanders showed growth as a sophomore in his approach to the game. He became a more patient runner, learning to use his vision to find open spaces instead of just trying to use his speed to escape defenders. Sanders has demonstrated talent out of the backfield, and can be used similar to Barkley in the passing game.
Sanders has received praise for his leadership in the locker room, and now has the opportunity to become an elite college back now that he will be the primary option in the running game. With an improved offensive line and a tremendous passing game to open up the offense, Sanders could put up stunning numbers as defenses will be unable to simply load the box to focus on stopping him.
Mark Allen (Sr.)
While Allen’s time on the field has been limited, he has always found a way to mafe the most of his opportunities. Allen has a broad skill set, and could excel as a third down back who can make plays out of the backfield. He’s also the best blocking RB on the roster, despite being just 5’6’’ and 180 lbs. he should see more opportunities as a senior, and don’t be suprised if new offensive coordinator Ricky Rhane finds some creative ways to get the ball in his hands to catch defenses off guard.
Johnathan Thomas (Sr.)
Thomas will look to find his way on the field as a senior after contributing mostly on special teams throughout his career at Penn State. He was also moved to linebacker briefly ahead of the 2016 season before eventually returning to his original position at running back. Thomas’ last rushing attempts were in 2015 during his redshirt freshman season, where he compiled 42 yards on 11 carries. The Massachusetts native is a powerful runner, and has a frame to be an asset in short-yardage situations in 2018.
Journey Brown (RS Fr.)
Brown is one of the fastest players ever to put on a Penn State uniform, and we’ll get to see how that translates to the field this fall after he took a redshirt season in 2017. The Meadville, Pa. product gained national recognition in high school for amassing 722 yards and 10 touchdowns in a single game as a junior. As a senior, he averaged 12.8 yards per carry and found the end zone 51 times. Based on comments from the coaching staff, Brown put his redshirt season to good use to learn the nuances of the college game that requires more than pure speed. He should receive opportunities as a redshirt freshman, and could become another weapon in Penn State’s well-rounded offense.
Ricky Slade (Fr.)
While this is a spring position preview, it should be mentioned that Ricky Slade could figure prominently in Penn State’s plans at running back once he joins the time this summer. Slade has a similar pedigree to Sanders, entering State College as the top running back of his class, and top player in the state (Virginia). Slade showed incredible vision for a high school player, regularly making cuts to escape defenders instead of just relying on athleticism like so many elite players at his level. He’s a someone every Penn State fan should be excited about, and seems destined to blossom into a superstar at some point during his time in Happy Valley.
Tommy Stevens (Jr.)
While Stevens is a quarterback (and not likely to participate in the Blue-White Game while he recovers from an injury) he should see much more time in the backfield as the ‘Lion’ in 2018. When he has the ball in his hands, he has the moves to make people miss, and can also run through defenders like a fullback. It seems as though he will have a much more regular part in Penn State’s offense from start to finish in 2018, and can add a really dangerous element to the offense with his ability to pass, run and catch the ball.