COLLINS: Freshman running back Noah Cain could be complete game-changer for Penn State

(Scranton) Times-Tribune (TNS)
Noah Cain

None of this means anything.

It’s not a wet blanket statement as much as it a fact.

What happens at Beaver Stadium on the Saturday of the Blue-White Game every year should stay at Beaver Stadium, because generally speaking, what you see is never necessarily what you get. It’s sound and fury that signifies nothing. The real battles for playing time, the real struggles for starting spots and the honest direction the team will take in the upcoming season only start to develop then.

Still, it’s difficult to see what Noah Cain did and not think he could be a complete game-changer. If ever there was a Blue-White Game performance that could convince a coach to change his plans after a meaningless scrimmage, Cain had it.

The numbers aren’t going to look impressive without the context, but here they are: Cain rushed for 45 yards on 12 carries, caught two passes for 13 yards, and scored a touchdown both ways and for both teams in the Blue’s 24-7 thumping of the white in front of an estimated 61,000 fans on a picturesque afternoon for spring football.

“I thought Noah Cain did some nice things today,” head coach James Franklin said.

Some context: Now, for some of the context. There was a time, not so long ago, a guy like Cain couldn’t even see the field in the fall of his first season on campus. For most of his career, Joe Paterno practically wouldn’t acknowledge in a public setting there was such a thing as a freshman football player. They had to pay their dues.

Things have changed, of course. Not only do freshmen play major roles within every college football program, they’re more seasoned. They’re enrolling early, by the dozens in some cases. A dozen members of Franklin’s prized 2019 recruiting class suited up Saturday, seeing their first action as college players just months after they left high school.

Most of them, you won’t read about today, anywhere.

Drawing praise from Franklin: Cain looked so smooth, his head coach decided to mention his performance in the postgame press conference before any in the assembled media horde had a chance to ask about it.

That says something.

“We’re going to watch the tape, and there were probably some times when he rushed his cut and things like that,” Franklin said. “But what he did, he was decisive (doing). He stuck his foot in the ground, and he got downhill. A lot of times, his runs aren’t overly sexy. But he’s just breaking tackles and falling forward, and he’s very productive.

“And he did a lot of that behind the second O-line against the (number) one D. That was impressive.”

There are a few admissions that have to be made here. One is Franklin said the offensive and defensive playcalling are about as creative as a baking soda-and-vinegar volcano at a science fair. The other is Penn State’s best players had little to prove and, thus, little reason to participate much Saturday.

Even considering that, it’s difficult to think of an offensive player who looked anywhere near as impressive as Cain did.

Other backs struggle bit: Which if you want to overthink the Blue-White Game in any way, might be a problem for the two running backs who many assumed had most of the fall playing time wrapped up long before Saturday.

Sophomores Ricky Slade and Journey Brown didn’t do much. Combined, they gained 20 yards on seven carries. Slade scored on a 1-yard run and caught three passes. There’s no reason to think Slade — a dynamic runner in his own right who came out of high school as the top prospect in the nation at his position — won’t still be the starter in the fall.

But, those numbers against the third- and fourth-team defenses aren’t making the needle on the seismograph dance. Cain willing his way past Yetur Gross-Matos and Robert Windsor, with guys like Bryce Effner, Hunter Kelly and Lake-Lehman standout Kaleb Konigus creating the holes for him is quite a bit different.

Experience factor: So is this fact: Brown and Slade have at least one year of college football experience under their belts. Cain didn’t start practicing until March.

“That’s definitely a challenge,” said sophomore receiver Jahan Dotson, who enrolled in January of 2018 and knows what it’s like to be cast into a Blue-White Game with just 14 practices under your belt. “You come in not knowing the playbook, and learning the playbook isn’t easy at all.”

Cain’s effectiveness didn’t surprise Slade, who said he could tell on film how decisive a runner Cain was when he was in high school.

“From Noah’s perspective, it probably wasn’t that difficult,” Slade said. “He had time to get the playbook down. He had a lot of reps to get the plays in. Coming out here for him, it’s just like another practice.

“We get to see his physicality. His vision is there. He’s a really good back to have.”

He'll play this fall: There is no doubt he’ll play this fall. Franklin and running backs coach Ja’Juan Seider made that clear during interviews leading up to the game. But there’s a difference between playing and being a factor, and the early guess here is Cain did the unlikely. He went from being a guy who would get some playing time to one who will fight for meaningful reps. And that couldn’t have been easy to do.

In his signing day press conference in December, Cain said he planned to spend “the next three years” of his career at Penn State.

Judging by the number of times Penn State coaches mentioned that off the cuff in recent months, they were words met with skepticism. Blasting his way to the NFL that quickly might not prove to be quite as easy as he made a spring scrimmage look, but he’s an easy player to dream on now for Penn State fans.

He talked the talk back then. On Saturday, meaningless as the Blue-White Game is, he took his first steps toward walking the walk, and nobody should bet against him come time to compete for a starting job in August.