Just the other day I got a daily Facebook memory of an article I wrote exactly three years ago, posted on August 5, 2016, on the Lions Pride Position Preview page. It was titled ‘King ‘Quon and the Four Headed Monster,’ a nod to the Penn State backfield that was getting ready to take the world by storm, and the title alone pretty much speaks for itself. Now, I’m not saying I was the first to use that title in reference to Saquon but all things considered, I challenge you to find another that used it prior to then. Ironically, if you’re counting down the days until Penn State football along with the rest of Nittany Nation, it was none other than the man himself, Super ‘Quon Barkley (another nickname I may or may not have latched onto before most others), who rang in the day at #26 and counting.
To say things have changed since 2016 would be a total understatement. In fact, without looking I’m willing to bet not one of those Lions I previewed that summer are still with us. The King is busy ruling the Big Apple, Trace is turning heads in Baltimore, and Miles Sanders is strong-arming the competition in Eagle green. Tommy Stevens took his swan song somewhere else, as did the little jitterbug that always gained positive yards, Mark Allen. All of which leads us to where WE ARE today. If you think the cupboard is bare, it’s anything but. On the contrary, shiny new faces may dominate the 2019 backfield but as far as talent is concerned, this backfield is loaded unlike any other. Inexperience may be the only question mark.
Much like the 2016 preseason, we’re already knee-deep in the midst of another quarterback battle; one we haven’t had to fret over since Trace edged out Tommy. Redshirt sophomore Sean Clifford showed enough in garbage time last year and throughout the spring to warrant this competition, regardless of Tommy’s senior status. With Tommy gone, insert redshirt freshman, Will Levis, into the conversation. With the little bit we’ve seen from Clifford in live-action, it’s safe to say he has a leg up going in but Levis has made it loud and clear he’s not throwing in the towel without a fight. We know they both have arms that can chuck a bullet downfield, what we don’t know about either one is if they have the escape ability that McSorley mastered.
Of course, going up against what’s expected to be one of the nation’s most ferocious defenses day in and ay out at practice should help accelerate the learning curve for both. If injuries take a toll, highly touted true freshmen Taquon Roberson and Michael Johnson are in the fold, but realistically speaking, both are prime candidates for a redshirt season, which leaves walk-on senior Michael Shuster as the third option if need be. It’s not a nightmare situation by any means, but the fear of the unknown is real and legit, much like it was three summers ago and we all know how magical that season turned out to be.
Behind them, check that, beside them, or flanked wide, or whatever the formation may be since ‘under center’ is no longer an option, sits a four-headed beast at tailback. They may not make you forget about Barkley or Sanders, but none of them intend to live in their shadows either. Sophomore Ricky Slade is expected to carry the load and speedster Journey Brown is the change of pace. Add top-ranked, true freshmen, Noah Cain and Devyn Ford into the mix and what we have on our hands is a double dose of a one-two punch that even Iron Mike Tyson would envy. I’ve heard ‘running back by committee’ all off-season and to an extent, I believe that’s what we’ll see. Fresh legs will be a major asset in the fourth quarter but I fully expect Slade to be the feature of this backfield. He’s got speed and runs with violence, almost like he’s daring the defense to stop him.
With that said, Journey is the most underrated of the bunch but has made the most noise this off-season according to running backs coach Ja’Juan Sieder. It’s to believe given the kid ran for over 700 yards in one game once in high school and broke the state record in the 100-yard dash set by NFL standout LeSean McCoy. For opposing defenses, the prospect is grim, to say the least. Of course, that all depends on the big boys in the trenches, and whether or not Sean Clifford or Will Levis can fill the huge void left behind by #9. A daunting task for sure but much like it was in the summer of 2016, this backfield is revamped and ready to ROAR!