Journey Brown's loss is tough, but here's why I believe Noah Cain will become the next great Penn State back
When I woke up on Tuesday morning and saw the late-night news that Journey Brown would be out indefinitely for medical reasons, two thoughts crossed my mind.
One was that I wanted to see the dude who ran through the entire Memphis defense play football again, and that I hope he can get healthy in due time to fulfill his obvious potential.
The other thought I had was one that I’m sure plenty of Penn State fans had as reality sunk in that one of the top returning backs in America wouldn’t be ready to roll for 2020.
It’s Noah Cain time.
No, that’s not a slight to Devyn Ford or the bevy of young, talented options in the Penn State backfield. I realize that Cain’s classmate is going to have a role in this offense, and it likely increased with the loss of Brown.
But yes, I believe Cain will become the next great Penn State back. That’s not to say he’ll be Saquon Barkley 2.0. That shouldn’t be the expectation every time the phrase “next great Penn State back” is used.
There are, however, several reasons why I’m now even more excited to see Cain have his opportunity.
This is exactly what Cain has been preparing for. I don’t mean that in the cliché way of like “young guy is now the starter on the depth chart.” What Cain did in high school was physically prepare for this moment in a unique way.
We always say that running backs have a shelf life. Each one can only take so many hits before their time is up. What often gets lost in the shuffle is what they’re asked to do in high school. Blue-chip recruits like Cain can often be in spots when they’re carrying the ball 25-30 times per game for their high school teams because their coach isn’t necessarily focused on shelf life. It’s about winning games.
That wasn’t Cain’s high school experience. At all. He made sure of it.
After Cain’s sophomore year at Denton Guyer High School (Texas), he and his dad went to a football camp at powerhouse IMG Academy in Bradenton (Fla.). While there, Cain walked into the office of IMG coach Kevin Wright (now the tight ends coach at Indiana) and handed him his résumé. That’s right. A printed résumé. To Wright’s amazement, most of the résumé was non-football accomplishments. Cain used his classroom work and community involvement to convince Wright to give him an opportunity to play at IMG.
“When you get 14- or 15-year-olds bringing in résumés,” Wright told me in 2018, “they’re already at a stage where most people don’t get to until college level.”
At IMG, where he had access to the school’s world-class training facilities, Cain walked into a situation where he knew he’d split carries with fellow blue-chip recruits Trey Sanders (now at Alabama) and T.J. Pledger (now at Oklahoma). That was the plan all along.
“People were like, ‘Why would you go out there with Trey (Sanders) and T.J. Pledger?’” Cain told me in 2018. “It really wasn’t about stats for me. It was about me getting better. I knew what my projection could be. I had to keep my body healthy. That’s the biggest thing to get ready for college. I saw an opportunity for me to really understand the college atmosphere and environment because I’d rather compete now and deal with adversity now than do it in college.
“College, that’s money time to get to the draft.”
All has gone according to plan for Cain so far. IMG running backs coach Carnell “Cadillac” Williams (now at Auburn), who famously formed one of the great college running back duos of all-time at Auburn with Ronnie Brown, said that Cain and Sanders shared a bunch of similarities to him and his former college teammate. Cain’s high school sample size was small splitting carries — he didn’t reach 90 carries in either of his 2 seasons at IMG — but he put together more than enough quality film to garner offers from all the big-time programs as a top-100 recruit in the 2019 class.
So far at Penn State, Cain’s sample size is small. He hasn’t quite shown off the top-end speed of Barkley, Miles Sanders or Brown, and he hasn’t gone viral for a bulldozing run like Brown or a hurdle like Barkley yet, but the early returns are strong. By the middle of Cain’s freshman season in 2019, Penn State fans were clamoring for Cain to break away from the backfield committee and be the true workhorse back:
Noah Cain: MY starting running back 🤩😈 pic.twitter.com/ueIyLKLoIN
— Onward State (@OnwardState) October 13, 2019
Of course, Cain didn’t become the true RB1 because he suffered a lower-leg injury against Michigan State, which opened the door for Brown’s dominance down the stretch. It was Brown who turned 78 carries into 593 yards and 9 touchdowns in the final 5 games, including his 202-yard effort to win the Cotton Bowl. That happened while Cain admittedly tried to return to early, and he wasn’t fully healthy until the Cotton Bowl, when he had 92 rushing yards and 2 scores of his own.
Cain’s vision, shiftiness and balance were on display all year for the Lions. He finished the season with 84 carries for 443 yards (5.3 yards per carry) and 8 touchdowns, but in the 4 games that he got 9 carries, Cain totaled 353 rushing yards and 6 touchdowns.
Earlier in the offseason, Cain said that he was feeling “as lean and as explosive as ever.” That was well before news of Brown’s 2020 absence surfaced publicly. Cain, now up around 223 pounds, was preparing for a breakout season, regardless of what happened with Brown.
Brown’s news means that Cain is now in the spotlight with new offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca. We saw Rodney Smith get a whopping 228 carries in Ciarrocca’s offense at Minnesota last year. The Gophers finished No. 23 in FBS in rush attempts per game. That suggests Cain and Ford are in for significant upticks in volume (Smith and backup Mohamed Ibrahim combined for 342 carries in 2019). That includes catching passes out of the backfield, which Cain said is something Ciarrocca emphasized over the summer.
What’s clear is that Cain is going to be asked to do more heavy lifting now than he has since he was a high school underclassman. That’s OK.
He’s been physically and mentally preparing for this for years. After all, high school was about getting his body ready.
Now, it’s money time.