'I can be as great as I want to be:' Ricky Slade leads youthful Penn State backfield

(Allentown) Morning Call (TNS)
Penn State's Ricky Slade (4) dives in for a touchdown as Appalachian State's Austin Exford (9) and Clifton Duck (4) try and to make the tackle during the second half of an NCAA college football game in State College, Pa., Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018. Penn State won 45-38 in overtime. (AP Photo/Chris Knight)
  • Running back Ricky Slade is set to make his first Penn State start on Saturday.
  • Slade, a sophomore, averaged 5.7 yards per carry last season as a freshman.
  • Penn State opens its 2019 season on Saturday against Idaho at Beaver Stadium.

Ricky Slade sees no ceiling for himself in Penn State’s backfield.

He feels fast and fresh, trusts his vision as his finest trait and even hints to watch him in the passing game.

“I can be as great as I want to be," Slade said.

Slade, a sophomore and Penn State’s top returning rusher, will make his first start at running back Saturday in the opener against Idaho at Beaver Stadium. That will give the Lions an important pair of first-time starters, as Slade joins quarterback Sean Clifford in a new-look offense.

But Slade likely will be part of backfield rotation, leading a position that Penn State has recruited exceptionally well the past two years. Coach James Franklin said that redshirt sophomore Journey Brown and freshmen Noah Cain and Devyn Ford will play in the opener, suggesting that the offense intends to mix its carries more than in previous seasons.

“We’re going to rotate those guys,” Franklin said Tuesday at his first weekly press conference of the season. “We plan on playing all four and then, obviously either by game or as the season goes on, play whoever we think is hot. It could be based on match-ups, because we’ve got different styles [of backs].”

Significant change: A rotation would be a significant change for Penn State, which has relied on a single back the past four years. Last season, Miles Sanders took 72 percent of the carries among running backs. The three years prior, Saquon Barkley received 73 percent of the carries.

In fact, the way Franklin used those backs was a significant recruiting lure.

“I always say that Saquon is a one-time back, a freak of nature, but also sets a really big tone for the rest of the recruiting class behind him,” Ford said prior to the Under Armour All-American Game in Orlando. "Then, after he graduates, more people can come in and do the same things.”

This year, that might be in group form. Slade, who averaged 5.7 yards per carry last season, won the starting job and shapes his game around the open field. Linebacker Jesse Luketa said that Slade is particularly adroit at dodging defenders in space.

Brown, a redshirt sophomore, is the speedster. Cain, at 5-10, 206 pounds is a “thunder” back, Slade said, and Ford has a loose, smooth style that will get him extra yards.

Together they form a contingent that running backs coach Ja’Juan Seider has christened the #LawnBoyz. Ford said he expects Penn State could rotate backs the way Georgia did with Nick Chubb, Sony Michel and D’Andre Swift did in 2017. That year, the three Bulldogs combined for 3,190 yards rushing.

“It’s going to be a really fun environment to be in,” Ford said. “It’s going to be hard to divide the touches between everybody.”

For Slade, the start validates an offseason in which he worked on generating more explosion out of the backfield. He also pushed himself to become a better receiver, saying that the backs will be a major component of the passing game.

“Everything in my game is coming together,” Slade said. "You’ll see more of my vision, my power, my explosiveness. I think it’s going to be a good year."

Nittany Notes: If the depth chart holds form, eight players will make their first career starts Saturday. Joining Slade and Clifford on offense are receiver Justin Shorter, tackle Rasheed Walker and guard C.J. Thorpe. The first time-defensive starters are end Shaka Toney, safety Lamont Wade and Luketa at linebacker.

Speaking of Luketa, he’ll start in place of senior Cam Brown, who is suspended for the first half after being called for targeting in the second half of the Citrus Bowl.

Wade is a player to watch early this season. After considering a transfer, the safety not only returned to Penn State but also earned a starting spot. Franklin said Wade is comfortable, confident and has “paid his dues.”

Seven true freshmen, along with three transfers, earned the “green light” to play as newcomers. They are Cain, Ford, linebackers Lance Dixon and Brandon Smith, offensive lineman Caeden Wallace, defensive end Adisa Isaac, cornerback Keaton Ellis, safety Jaquan Brisker (a transfer from Lackawanna College), kicker Jordan Stout (a transfer from Virginia Tech) and receiver Weston Carr (a Division II transfer).

Stout tops the depth chart in handling kickoffs. He mastered that discipline for Virginia Tech last season, hitting touchbacks at a rate of 84.5 percent.