Penn State running backs have a checkered history in the National Football League, ranging from names like Ki-Jana Carter to Larry Johnson. But there has been a more steady flow of production from recent Nittany Lion products in guys like Saquon Barkley and Miles Sanders. And now, after a year of not having a back drafted in the top two at his position after accomplishing that goal the two years prior, they are in the running for another draftee to be selected up top. But to do so, running back Journey Brown must capitalize on his traits and improve in a few areas.
What is Brown’s trump card?
Speed, burst and change of direction
Penn State certainly seems to have a type, don’t they? Barkley was an athletic marvel of which we’ve rarely ever seen. At his size, there’s no feasible reason why he should move the way he does, but his spring is unquestionable. Sanders is a more traditionally built back at 5’11 and 211 pounds, but the spring in his step is what made him such an admirable player to NFL teams as well. There certainly are shades of Sanders in Brown’s game, particularly when they’re each given space.
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In the above video, the two-high look from Pittsburgh gives Penn State a nice 6v6 box situation for this split zone concept. Brown does a nice job getting skinny through the hole, but what happened next is what really impresses on this play. As he splits the blocks, he easily accelerates past two defenders attempting to pinch him for the tackle. What you notice most is the fluidity in the lower half of these PSU backs, specifically with their ability to bend away from defenders and maintain or even gain speed as they angle away from tacklers.
Brown isn’t one to spin and get super wide with jump cuts often or unnecessarily because he remains on script so often and runs more north/south than Barkley and Sanders, who were more prone to bounce runs, but he displays the ability to jump cut and burst in and out with efficient brakes.
The first video showed the elite level long speed of Brown, but the above video shows his other elite trait, his smooth and instant acceleration. There aren’t many times defenders are able to cut him off before he takes the edge. This young man deletes angles. His 10.43 100-meter dash broke a 30-year PIAA record. And according to the PSU weight room, Brown was clocked at 4.29 in the 40-yard dash.
In the above video, Iowa’s Nick Niemann had a good few yards of cushion here to track down Brown to the edge, and instead of accomplishing that, he was ran past as if he was in quicksand. Make no mistake, Brown and Clemson RB Travis Etienne are on the same tier of acceleration freak. However, there are a few things that make it hard to consider them in the same tier as prospects.
Where does Brown need to improve?
Contact balance and short yard situations
For all the improvements in Brown’s game throughout the 2019 season, the one thing that never seemed to elevate was his ability to break from first contact and pick up extra yards. For such an explosive player, it’s frustrating to see him go down on first contact so often, even slight contact both in space and in confined areas. That is the biggest difference between him and Etienne.
Take the above video, for example. I expect with that contact, moving horizontally on the initiation, to end in an easy touchdown falling forward. But Brown isn’t one with a lot of bubble in his lower half, and that leads to a lack of explosion through contact to fall forward.
To be a true feature back at the NFL level, he must continue to build that strength in the lower half while maintaining that explosion and flexibility that makes him so special as an athlete. One note is late in the season, and particularly against Memphis, he showed more contact balance and also showed off a devastating stiff arm multiple times throughout the course of the contest.
Receiving and blocking are hit or miss
Penn State doesn’t often use Brown as a pass-catcher, opting to leave him in as a pass protector on most occasions. In pass protection, he’s an admirably willing participant, often staying square and taking on the brunt of a full force downhill blitzing linebacker. That lack of lower body strength rears its head when blocking as well, as he often gets bubbled back into the pocket and into the quarterback.
As a receiver, he’s shown flashes of nice hands and some slick route running, but other times he’s fought passes that aren’t pinpoint. Hopefully, in his senior season, they’ll use him more often split out against linebackers and safeties and from out of the backfield to get a better feel for his overall receiving ability.
Dane Brugler recently came out with his top-10 backs, and he had Brown all the way at the top of the list. Although there are certainly holes in his game, I understand betting on the upside. Pro Football Network’s own Matt Valdovinos placed him lower on his top-10 list, and that’s where I’d personally have him going into his final season. But like Sanders, it’s easy to see an upward trajectory that could land him at the very top come April of 2021.