PSU's Noah Cain runs 'way bigger than his size' and for something 'bigger than himself'
Noah Cain, who learned to play football in Louisiana and Texas and Florida, packed three winter coats in January. He left Orlando after playing in the Under Armour All-America Game and headed to Penn State for his first real winter.
“I’ll probably wear two of those jackets when I get off the plane in State College,” Cain said then.
Ten months later, the freshman is a standout of Penn State’s “LawnBoyz” backfield that has has been a captivating part of the season’s first half. Cain will continue to share the workload with Journey Brown, Ricky Slade and fellow freshman Devyn Ford in a position room that coach James Franklin called “really healthy, really positive.”
But he already has become a fan favorite.
Cain joined the group confident that he would contribute early, which he has. The freshman leads the team with five touchdowns, averages 5.9 yards per carry and has lost just 2 yards on 35 carries. He’ll help drive the offense Saturday night at Iowa.
On second-half touchdown drives against Pitt and Purdue, Cain labored to consistently positive yardage and left Beaver Stadium wanting more. He’s 5-10, 206 pounds and runs with a between-the-tackles purpose reminiscent of Penn State’s better power backs of the past.
Franklin called Cain decisive, a running back who plants a foot, draws force from that leverage and breaks tackles. Plus, “he always falls forward,” the coach said.
And defensive end Shaka Toney noticed Cain’s power early in spring drills. Cain ran forcefully during scrimmages, to the point that Toney said, “Some guys don’t want to tackle him, especially in the fourth quarter.”
Toney saw something else behind Cain’s style: a purpose.
“Even though his stature is small, I think he runs way, way, way bigger than his size,” Toney said. “You can’t put a measurable on heart, and I think that’s the biggest thing he has. He’s not afraid of anybody. You can tell he’s out here ready to do something that’s bigger than himself.”
Stepping outside his comfort zone: What is that? Cain explained his purpose on an 80-degree Florida afternoon in December, just days before starting school at Penn State. It began with stepping outside his comfort zone, finding someplace new and feeling as though he belonged.
Cain originally is from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, which he still calls home. His father Terence lives there. A cousin, Michael Clayton, played football at LSU prior to his NFL career.
After Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, Cain moved to Texas, where he grew into football. He played at Texas high school power Denton Guyer, emerging from competitive backfields to rush for 1,638 yards and 22 touchdowns as a sophomore.
That got the attention of Florida’s IMG Academy, where Cain played his final two seasons. He ran against even more competition at IMG, ultimately being named the program’s co-offensive MVP as a senior.
“It’s funny that we talk about our running back room, but he had the same running back situation in high school,” Franklin said. "Maybe not four, but multiple guys that he shared the ball with, and he took advantage of his opportunity. He's prepared for this."
Charting a different course: Cain also prepared to chart a different course. He was on everybody’s recruiting short list and made official visits to Penn State, LSU, Georgia, Texas and Auburn in the fall of 2018. On Signing Day last December, Cain initially intended to Texas, where family could watch him play.
Then he called Penn State’s coaching staff, including running backs coach Ja’Juan Seider, who made a final pitch. Cain had met Seider in 2017 when Seider coached running backs at Florida. He liked the coach, developing a stronger relationship on his visit to Penn State.
On that Signing Day call, Seider “changed everything" for Cain.
“It was Texas,” Cain said. “I was getting ready to tell [Penn State] no. I wanted to be professional. But something told me to ask him, ‘Why should I come to Penn State?’ The reasons he gave me, the relationship we had, sat really well with me.”
Turning point: At first, Cain’s mother Tonya wasn’t on board. “That’s too far,” she told him. But Cain convinced her to attend a recruiting picnic at Penn State last summer.
It proved to be a turning point. Now, Franklin said, Cain’s parents “are here all the time.”
“The biggest thing was trust,” Cain said. “She trusted [the Penn State coaches] the most. She trusted Coach Seider and Coach Franklin with my future. There was stability. When the USC rumors [regarding Franklin] came up, we had a real talk with him about it. He told us, ‘Penn State isn’t a job you just go through. It’s a job you stay at until you retire.’ When he said that, we just went with it.”
For Cain, Penn State felt both comfortable and unique. It felt secluded and new. It satisfied his need to get away and “see someplace different.”
“I can be focused on academics and football, not have as many people get their hands on me as they would in Austin [Texas],” Cain said. "There’s a lot of family, more distractions. State College is a secluded spot. I just like the fact that I can be up there and be myself."