Who is Penn State's all-time best running back? Ex-players, media vote
Penn State football has been playing for just over 130 seasons and, to our knowledge, a large group has never before been assembled to pick out the all-time stars in the Nittany Lions’ storied history.
We thought this Happy Valley summer was the perfect time to change that.
So, we organized a group of 12 experts — six former players and six media members, all listed below — to vote on the top-10 all-time players at each position. Like any list it may not be perfect, but it’s the closest thing to an expert consensus that’s been done so far.
We’ll kick it off with running backs and release another position each following day. If you think we missed something, we’ve got good news for you: You can vote yourself in our fan poll, and we’ll release those results on July 22.
Without further ado, here are Penn State’s top-10 running backs based on the opinion of our 12-person panel.
10. Blair Thomas, 1985-1987; 1989
Best ranking/worst: No. 6/Unranked
Career stats: 3,301 rushing yards, 21 TDs; 477 receiving yards, 2 TDs
To this day, Thomas is the only Penn State running back to finish with two 1,300-yard rushing seasons. (Saquon Barkley came up 29 yards short last season of matching the feat.) Known for finding the hole, even if it was on the right side on a play designed to go left, Thomas was consistently a force. Even in his sophomore season, as a backup, he averaged 8.4 yards a carry for 504 yards en route to the national championship.
9. Franco Harris, 1969-1971
Best ranking/worst: No. 2/Unranked
Career stats: 2,002 rushing yards, 24 TDs; 352 receiving yards, 1 TD
What kind of list would this be without a fullback? Harris was known as a blocker in his playing days at Penn State but, if there was any doubt about his talent, he sure made up for it with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He became a nine-time Pro Bowler before earning a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
8. Lenny Moore, 1953-1955
Best ranking/worst: No. 2/No. 10
Career stats : 2,372 rushing yards, 23 TDs; 125 receiving yards, 1 TD
Joe Paterno once said he was “probably the best player I coached, all-around” — and Moore received a top-10 vote from every single one of our panel members. He narrowly missed out on being ranked as high as No. 6. He wasn’t a fan of catching passes in Happy Valley, but it became The Reading Rocket’s bread-and-butter during his Hall of Fame playing career in the NFL.
7. Lydell Mitchell, 1969-1971
Best ranking/worst: No. 4/Unranked
Career stats: 2,934 rushing yards, 38 TDs; 470 receiving yards, 3 TDs
Mitchell’s 1971 season and school-record 26 rushing touchdowns might never be topped. His 1,567 rushing yards that season also remained a single-season record until 23 years later when Ki-Jana Carter came around. Mitchell once compared his running style to that of Ray Rice; the PSU great was never afraid to do the “tough” stuff.
6. Curtis Enis, 1995-1997
Best ranking/worst: No. 2/Unranked
Career stats: 3,256 rushing yards, 36 TDs; 506 receiving yards, 2 TDs
Enis may have spent some time in the JoePa doghouse, but he also spent a lot of time punishing defenses. Following his All-American junior season, one NFL scouting director said he wasn’t quite as powerful as Jerome Bettis, but Enis had “more halfback in him.” He received a top-10 vote from all but one panel member.
5. Larry Johnson, 1999-2002
Best ranking/worst: No. 3/No. 8
Career stats: 2,953 rushing yards, 26 TDs; 681 receiving yards, 7 TDs
How did LJ start just one season again? His 2002 season was historic: A school-record 2,087 yards for 20 touchdowns and a 7.7 yards-per-carry average. Even Barry Sanders, in his magical 1988 season with Oklahoma State, averaged only 7.6. For a few years, between his final season at Penn State and several in the NFL (2005, 2006), he was on top of the world athletically.
4. Curt Warner, 1979-1982 (1 first-place vote)
Best ranking/worst: No. 1/No. 10
Career stats: 3,398 rushing yards, 24 TDs; 662 receiving yards, 6 TDs
With Saquon Barkley earning Warner comparisons early on — and somehow surpassing those lofty expectations — it’s easy to forget just how dominant Warner once was. He finished his college career as a two-time All-American who owned 42 school records. He was drafted No. 3 overall, went to three Pro Bowls and earned a spot in the College Football Hall of Fame. He’s No. 4 on this list; he’d be No. 1 at most other schools.
3. John Cappelletti, 1971-1973
Best ranking/worst: No. 2/Unranked
Career stats: 2,639 rushing yards, 29 TDs; 207 receiving yards, 1 TD
Other backs have had more touchdowns, more yards and a better yards-per-carry average, but there’s one important thing they don’t have — the Heisman. Cappelletti won Penn State’s lone Heisman Trophy in 1973 and had his No. 22 jersey retired five years ago — the first Penn State athlete so honored. He’s a Big Ten icon; his moving Heisman acceptance speech will never be forgotten.
2. Ki-Jana Carter, 1992-1994
Best ranking/worst: No. 2/No. 6
Career stats: 2,828 rushing yards, 34 TDs; 172 receiving yards, 0 TDs
The separation between Carter and the No. 3 running back was wider than the gulf between Cappelletti and the No. 7 back. In other words, Carter ran away with the runner-up spot; only two panelists ranked him outside of the top 3. If Paterno wasn’t so averse to running up scores, Carter could’ve easily racked up 2,000 yards during the undefeated 1994 campaign. His career average of 7.2 yards per carry is hard, if not impossible, to top.
1. Saquon Barkley, 2015-2017 (11 first-place votes)
Best ranking/worst: No. 1/No. 4
Career stats: 3,843 rushing yards, 43 TDs; 1,195 receiving yards, 8 TDs
It was nearly unanimous: Barkley is the all-time best running back in Penn State history.
In fact, no other player at any other position garnered as many first-place votes as Barkley. It wasn’t just the numbers that allowed Barkley to win over so many fans — although his school-leading 53 total touchdowns and 5,538 all-purpose yards certainly didn’t hurt. But it was his entertaining, video game-esque plays from the likes of the Rose Bowl and the comeback win at Iowa that PSU fans will remember long after Barkley retires from a likely fruitful pro career.
He never had the best offensive line. But whether it was a run, a catch — even a pass — he never struggled in showcasing his best. Said coach James Franklin: “I’ve been blessed to coach him.” And, as the greatest RB in Penn State history, fans were blessed to watch him.
Top RB honorable mentions: Evan Royster, 2007-2010; DJ Dozier, 1983-1986
Voters in our panel: (Players) Keith Conlin, 1992-1995; Bill Contz, 1980-1982; Stephon Morris, 2009-2012; Joe Nastasi, 1995-1998; A.Q. Shipley, 2005-2008; Adam Taliaferro, 2000; (Media) Nate Bauer, Blue White Illustrated; Matt Brown, The Athletic; Cory Giger, Altoona Mirror; John McGonigal, Centre Daily Times; Josh Moyer, Centre Daily Times; Mark Wogenrich, Allentown Morning Call
How the voting was done: Each voter was given an online survey, with 20-50 players at each position, to rank 1-10. If a player was not listed, voters were given the option for a write-in. First-place votes gave players 10 points, second-place votes gave them 9, etc. We then added all the point totals together to find our top 10; honorable mentions have received at least 10 total points.