After 2021 run-game struggles, Penn State determined 'to prove the doubters wrong' in 2022

JON SAUBER
Centre Daily Times (TNS)
Penn State running back Keyvone Lee (24) looks to elude Michigan linebacker Michael Barrett (23) during an NCAA college football game against Penn State in State College, Pa., Saturday, Nov. 13, 2021. Michigan defeated Penn State 21-17. (AP Photo/Barry Reeger)

Penn State head football coach James Franklin was visibly frustrated following his team's 30-27 loss to Michigan State in late November 2021. When asked about the importance of running, he was succinct.

"It's important," he said. "I want to be able to run the ball."

While Penn State wasn't able to do that in 2021, it's clear the head coach and his offensive coordinator — Mike Yurcich — have made that a priority heading into the 2022 season.

Franklin, Yurcich and his players have highlighted the need to be able to run the ball next season and have put an increased emphasis on getting better at it during spring practice.

The head coach was the first to acknowledge the need for improvement in that aspect of offense.

"I think we can make significant strides this year," Franklin said in March. "I think the run game is a big part of that. We have to get the run game going."

The need to do so was glaring to the program, with no running back reaching the 100 yard benchmark in any game during the 2021 season. Part of the reason was the lack of commitment to a single running back in any given game. Keyvone Lee finished as the team's leading rusher, but only had 530 yards.

Lee was frustrated by the lack of 100 yard rushers last year and wants to ensure it doesn't happen again this season.

"We have a lot to prove and I can't wait to prove the doubters wrong," Lee said. "Last year, see I don't like to bring it up because it was hurting me a little bit, but we didn't rush for over 100 yards. I did in my career ... every other time before then. We got a lot to prove."

Penn State head coach James Franklin, right, and offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich, second from right, watch the action against Illinois during an NCAA college football game in State College, Pa. on Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021. (AP Photo/Barry Reeger)

Yurcich looking forward: The emphasis on the run came from the man calling the plays, too. Yurcich, who is heading into his second season as the team's offensive coordinator, declined to discuss his offense's performance in 2021 — saying it was a distraction to look back — and instead turned the page forward.

And while he didn't offer any specific solutions, he was adamant in his belief that the poor running game that plagued last season won't impact the 2022 season.

His solutions — the ones offered publicly — were more broad.

"We have to run the football better," Yurcich said in late March. "We're committed to it. We will. ... We're gonna execute better, we're gonna coach it better, we're gonna play better."

York High's Jacquez Simmons, right, moves in to stop Governor Mifflin's Nicholas Singleton during football action at Smalls Athletic Field in York City, Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021. Governor Mifflin would win the game 55-6. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Influx of new talent: The coaching and execution improving should help Lee and the rest of the running back room, and so should an influx of talent at the position.

Last season's second leading rusher, Noah Cain, is gone. He entered the transfer portal following the season and is now at LSU. Replacing him are two high end freshman talents that enrolled at Penn State in January and are already participating in spring practice. Former five-star recruit Nick Singleton is one of those freshmen.

He's a gifted athlete that strength and conditioning coach Chuck Losey said was impressing in the weight room.

Alongside him is former four-star running back Kaytron Allen, a product of IMG Academy, where he learned to become a polished football player at a young age.

Both runners have already impressed their coaches and — and teammates like redshirt senior linebacker Jonathan Sutherland — early in their careers.

"The two freshmen have been impressive, really since they've shown up on campus," Franklin said in March. "... Kaytron is very football smart. I think his experience at IMG has put him ahead in terms of college level learning, experience and understanding defensive protections and things like that. (Nick) has been pretty impressive. He's got tremendous burst, powerful, strong in pass protection. So we've been impressed so far."

"(Singleton's) burst of speed, his burst out of the whole, it's really explosive," Sutherland said.

Singleton and Allen should help, but early on will only be pieces to the puzzle that features Lee and veterans Devyn Ford and Caziah Holmes.

Burden of increased expectations: Those five backs will now feel the burden of increased expectations this fall, despite a lackluster performance in 2021. The spotlighting of the running game has drawn plenty of attention to the room and will surely be one that is watched closely during the Blue-White game Saturday, but also beyond.

That scrutiny could make things difficult, but Lee has all the faith he needs that he and his teammates will succeed, and Franklin's belief that the team needs to run more only fuels that fire.

"Hearing that from the head coach, the head man who's got control of everything, it just gets me fired up," Lee said. "It gets me motivated. It gets all of us in the running back room. ... I can't wait to see what we're going to do. I love to hear it."