Players know when it’s time to go.

Penn State running back Noah Cain will finish this semester, pick up the diploma for his Journalism degree and hit the transfer portal, he announced recently in a tweet. Within a day, he announced his destination. The native of Baton Rouge, La., is going home to play for LSU.

Count this as a perfectly reasonable move for Cain, and no great loss for Penn State. This is not meant as sour grapes, a cheap shot at Cain or a defense of James Franklin and his staff. It’s simply to say that because of injuries and other circumstances, Cain’s once-promising college career has fizzled out in State College.


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Nittany Nation should celebrate that he’s leaving with fond memories and a degree. The running back room will be just fine, so long as Keyvone Lee doesn’t put out a similar tweet in the days or weeks to come.

The fact of transfers looms over all programs these days, now that player movement is free and easy with the portal rules as they are. In the days since the national championship game, at least 8 Alabama players offered themselves up to suitors. Plenty of PSU fans think the Lions should get in on at least 2 or 3 of them.

In scouring the portal, Penn State’s staff should focus on plenty of other positions before worrying about finding a running back. With Lee and a couple other veterans returning — plus a super recruit in Nicholas Singleton who can and probably should play right away — the Lions will be fine in the backfield so long as fixes are made to other parts of the offense.

Why Cain’s decision makes sense

He’ll enter his 4th year in college in the fall having never established himself as Penn State’s No. 1 tailback. In fact, his first season was his best, and it has sadly been downhill ever since, with an injury ending his 2020 season after only 3 carries. If he had stayed, Cain likely would have entered next season as the No. 2 running back at best.

Maybe lingering effects from the injury and/or first-year OC Mike Yurcich’s scheme are to blame, but Cain never got going in 2021. In fact, he got worse as the season went on. He finished averaging 3.3 yard per carry, a full 2 yards per carry less than he produced in 10 games as a freshman. Lee, by contrast, averaged 4.9, gaining 180 more yards than Cain over the course of the season on only 2 more carries. In his best game of 2021, Cain turned 20 carries into 69 yards against Ball State. After the 3rd game of the season, he never ran for more than 43 yards and never had more than 11 carries. Yurcich called his name less than 12 times in 10 of the 12 games he played in.

That’s not the kind of career arc worth staying on. Starting fresh at LSU, he can leave that baggage behind in State College.

What Cain’s future might hold

If joining the Tigers turns out to be the right situation, maybe Cain can return to his true freshman form. Complementing top back Journey Brown that year, Cain averaged 5.3 yards per carry and produced back-to-back 100-yard games against Purdue and Iowa. He capped that season with 92 yards on 15 carries against Memphis in the Cotton Bowl, finishing the year with 443 yards and 8 TDs on the ground.

He was certainly living up to his 4-star, top-100 recruiting ranking after coming out of IMG Academy in Florida at 5-10 and 208 pounds. He was the No. 2 back in a dynamic duo with Brown entering 2020, and then they both got hurt — Brown before the season and Cain in its first game.

Cain, now 220 pounds as a mature 21-year-old, had his 3 best games 3 years ago, topping out at 105 yards in the 5th game he played in for the Nittany Lions. He’ll have 2 years of eligibility remaining at LSU.

Maybe he can recapture that promising form, but trying to do so at Penn State given the current situation wouldn’t have made sense.

What it means for Penn State

Lee will enter 2022 atop the depth chart at running back, just as he would have had Cain stuck around. Caziah Holmes, like Lee, returns as a 3rd-year sophomore thanks to 2020 not counting against eligibility. Devyn Ford, a higher-rated recruit than Cain in the 2019 class, returns as a junior.

Holmes and Ford would have to step up significantly to earn larger roles, as they combined for only 19 carries this season. With Cain and John Lovett gone, they might get a real shot in 2022. Both of them got more playing time in previous seasons, and both average more yards per carry in their career than Cain. (As does Lee.)

  • Cain: 193 carries, 806 yards, 4.2 ypc
  • Lee: 197 carries, 968 yards, 4.9 ypc
  • Ford: 133 carries, 629 yards, 4.7 ypc
  • Holmes: 56 carries, 254 yards, 4.5 ypc

Singleton, the Gatorade National Player of the Year and Penn State’s No. 2 recruit behind 5-star QB Drew Allar, will slot into that depth chart — and probably near the top of it before very long.

And none of this will matter at all if Penn State doesn’t get vastly better play from its offensive line and come up with better game plans. The program is coming off a season without a single 100-yard rusher and a top back in Lee who produced only 530 rushing yards (40.8 per game).

With no one on the roster averaging even 9 carries per game, it’s no wonder no one had a 100-yard game. Cain’s exit might be a net benefit just by tightening the rotation. Maybe in 2022, Penn State will have a clear feature back and allow him to find a rhythm.

Otherwise, these remaining and incoming guys might follow Cain out of town in another year. And that would be a problem.