Former Penn State, current LSU running back Noah Cain thrilled to be home in Baton Rouge

Running back Noah Cain has transferred from Penn State to LSU. PHOTO by Tim Buckley

He is a Katrina kid, one of so many displaced after the 2005 hurricane unleashed its deadly wrath on a state ill-equipped to handle its force.

But while running back Noah Cain was blown westward from Baton Rouge to Texas, where he moved with his mother Tonya following the devastating storm that claimed more than 1,800 lives and left about $125 billion in damage in its wake, his heart never left Louisiana.

So after bouncing around a bit – first leaving his high school in Denton, just north of Dallas, to finish his prep career at IMG Academy in Florida, and later heading to Penn State, where he stayed three seasons and earned his college degree – Cain is finally back home.

“My dad (Terence) stayed in Baton Rouge (after Katrina). He never left. My whole family is from here,” said Cain, a cousin of former Baton Rouge Christian Life, LSU, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New York Giants receiver Michael Clayton. “So I was always back in Louisiana, training every summer. I was down here every holiday. So I was always home. It’s just (that) I didn’t go to school out here.

“I always took pride in saying I was from Louisiana. When I was in Texas, everybody was like, ‘Are you a Texas kid?’ I always stopped people and corrected them – like, ‘Get it straight; I’m from Louisiana.’

“So, being from here, it means something. You know, I think every guy from Louisiana takes pride in that, because when you go to other states it’s ‘East Coast, West Coast,’ man,” Cain added. “When you’re a Louisiana kid, people expect you to have a certain type of different mentality.”

It’s why Cain didn’t hesitate when he had a chance to sign with LSU out of the NCAA transfer portal earlier this year, and why he’s now a big part of the backfield as Brian Kelly prepares for his first season as coach of the SEC’s Tigers beginning with Sunday night against Florida State at the Superdome in New Orleans.

ABC will televise the game at 6:45 p.m.

The decision to leave Happy Valley for Death Valley really was a no-brainer for Cain once he entered the portal and Kelly and members of his new staff began making contact.

“Basically what they were telling me was I had an opportunity to come in, leave my mark on this program. Have an opportunity to compete for the starting job,” Cain said. “And that’s all I needed to hear – just the opportunity to come in and compete for a spot.”

NO ROOM AT THE INN 

Coming out of IMG, where he was a captain on a 7-1 team that finished his 2018 senior season with a No. 3 MaxPreps national ranking, Cain was denied the opportunity to play for then-coach Ed Orgeron’s Tigers.

LSU had commitments from two running backs, Tyrion Davis-Price and John Emery Jr., in its 2019 signing class, and Cain had to look elsewhere.  

Emery is still around, and will rotate this season with Cain, Armoni Goodwin and Josh Williams.

But with Davis-Price gone, having been selected by the San Francisco 49ers in the third round of the 2022 NFL Draft, the Tigers had room for the one they didn’t get a few short years ago.

“It’s crazy how all these things work out,” Cain said.

“When John (Emery) had committed, they already had two backs. … So once I started exploring my other options, Penn State made the most sense at the time. But fast-forward to me being here at LSU now. You know, it’s just the perfect time for me. So I’m just happy to put on that purple and gold.”

He’s not the only one thrilled Cain now plays for the home team.

The same can be said for many around Baton Rouge, including some folks Cain hadn’t seen or even spoken with for years.

“My whole family was happy,” he said.

“My grandparents’ house is 20 minutes up the street. It’s just been awesome being back here, man. It’s made everything easier.”

THE PENN STATE EXPERIENCE

Little, however, was simple for Cain in State College.

The cuisine, for starters, was nothing like a Baton Rouge native who divided time between Louisiana and Texas was accustomed.

“Being at Penn State,” Cain said, “I don’t take food for granted anymore.”

Beyond that, injury interrupted a promising on-field career.

Cain rushed for 443 yards and eight touchdowns on 84 carries over 10 games including one start as a freshman in 2019, LSU’s most-recent national championship season.

With 105 yards against Purdue and 102 at Iowa that year, he became the first Penn State freshman to rush for at least 100 yards in back-to-back games since Saquon Barkley did it in 2015.

Cain capped the 2019 season with 15 carries for 92 yards and two TDs in Penn State’s Cotton Bowl win over Memphis.

He picked up where he left off, starting the Nittany Lions’ 2020 opener against Indiana with three carries for 13 yards when disaster struck.

Cain sustained a Lisfranc foot fracture on Penn State’s opening drive against the Hoosiers, ending his sophomore season mere moments after it began.

He returned in 2021 to rush 105 times for 334 yards and four TDs while starting six of the 13 games in which he played, but things never were the same for Cain post-injury at Penn State compared to how they were pre-injury.

Even in his first LSU preseason camp, they still really weren’t.

LISCRANC NO FUN

New LSU offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock had high praise for Cain shortly after camp opened.

“Noah’s a very intelligent football player. He’s played a lot of football. Obviously played on a big stage,” he said then. “So I think he’s going to adapt to our offensive scheme very well.

“I think our offensive scheme fits him really well. I think he’s comfortable with the things we do in the run game and with pass protection. So, I love the progress that he’s made. … Very positive stuff with him.”

When he met with media members eight days later, however, Kelly indicated he thought Cain still was not quite back to his usual self.

“I didn’t think he played early on with the ‘physicality,’ ” Kelly said. “It looked like he was still kind of feeling his way through it a little bit early on.

“But you can see he’s starting to come on and playing … behind his pads, with better vision, and I just think he’s going to continue to feel better and more comfortable.

“He’s getting better, and I know he’s feeling better about himself too, in terms of just getting back into the fold, so to speak,” Kelly added. “So, I think progress is definitely being made there.”

Cain is the first to admit recovery from the Lisfranc fracture was not fun.

“It was uncomfortable, man, getting tackled for a while. It didn’t heal as fast as I wanted it to,” he said. “Coming back last year, I was able to earn a starting job back. But I wasn’t able to really put the film out there I wanted to.

“So now I have the opportunity to have a full offseason to recover, a full summer of just getting back to myself. It’s just great.”

A TEAM OF TRANSFERS

Even better for Cain is where he’s doing it.

“My first day of workouts, I’m putting on LSU workout gear – it was just surreal,” he said. “You know, it’s just a blessing to be here. So I’m just happy to be part of the team, happy to be able to contribute.”

It’s a team that was very much in flux over the offseason, one loaded with portal pickups from here, there and seemingly everywhere.

Quarterback Jayden Daniels started the last three seasons at Arizona State. New offensive linemen include guards Miles Frazier (Florida International) and Tre’Mond Shorts (East Tennessee State). Defensive backs Greg Brooks Jr. and Joe Foucha both starred previously at Arkansas, and receiver Kyren Lacy and cornerback Mekhi Garner did the same at Louisiana.

The Tigers also added cornerbacks Jarrick Bernard-Converse (Oklahoma State), Sevyn Banks (Ohio State) and Colby Richardson (McNeese). Defensive lineman Mekhi Wingo arrived from Missouri, and linebackers Kolbe Fields and West Weeks from South Carolina and Virginia, respectively.

Kicker Trey Finison came from Northwestern, deep snapper Slade Roy came from East Carolina and punter Jay Bramblett came from Notre Dame, where Kelly coached before leaving South Bend for Baton Rouge.

And that’s not even everyone new.

All the fresh faces necessitated a need for summertime chemistry-building, and for the realization that some may have to take on lesser roles for the greater good.

“You have to be willing to do the things that may not be as splashy. … You’ve got to sacrifice for your brother and your teammates,” Cain said. “I think everybody on this team has understood that.”

FAMILIAR FACES AT LSU

Having so many newcomers, however, does not mean they’re all strangers.

Daniels and Cain took part together in The Opening Finals, a Nike football camp, and they played together in the Under Armour All-American Game.

“So I’ve been knowing Noah for some time,” Daniels said.

“He’s a hard worker. What he brings to the team: the physicality. That running style. He’s gonna give you the extra yardage, he’s gonna give you everything he’s got. … He’s just a great dude, and everybody else in that running back room is just great people.”

That includes Emery, a Destrehan High product who also knew Cain long before he arrived at LSU.

They once roomed together at a Nike camp.

“Once I came, it was nothing but love,” Cain said. “I was in Zoom meetings all in the spring chiming in, and John (Emery) was just saying, ‘Man, they’re excited to get you down here.’

“And all summer we were making each other better. We’d get extra routes in, Jugs, watch film together, just kind feed off of each other.

“Because we both understand, ‘Man, we can really do something special and really shock the country,’ ” Cain added. “So we understand what’s really at stake this season for both of us. It’s not just about (individual accomplishments). It’s really just about we’re trying to make each other better, because the better we can go at each other the better product we can put on the field.”

MIKE DENBROCK’S OFFENSE

Cain has joined a running backs room that has thinned out since he originally committed to LSU last January.

Corey Kiner left during spring practice and returned to Cincinnati to play for his hometown Bearcats. Tre Bradford left the team early in preseason camp.

Cain called the losses unfortunate.

“It’s a business at the end of the day,” he said.

“But, like I said, ‘This is LSU.’ It’s not for everybody. You’ve got to come in and be ready to put your head down and work every day. You’ve got to be willing to sacrifice. It’s a privilege to be here. It’s a blessing to play running back at LSU. Everybody doesn’t get this opportunity, so you’ve got to be able to take the good with the bad.”

Those who survive, Cain believes, ultimately will be beneficiaries of a Denbrock-coordinated offense designed to take advantage of deep talent.

“He gets everybody involved,” Cain said of Denbrock, a former offensive coordinator most recently at Cincinnati and previously under Kelly at Notre Dame. “It’s not just one position group getting the ball.

“You know, tight ends are getting reps, the receivers are getting the ball, quarterbacks. It’s just so versatile. Everybody’s involved. It’s not ‘one person is a decoy.’

“That’s something that really stuck out to me, just watching Cincinnati film and (how) he used Jerome Ford from Alabama.”

THE PLACE CAIN ALWAYS WANTED TO BE

Ford, a former Crimson Tide and Bearcats running back, was selected by the Cleveland Browns in the fifth round of the 2022 NFL Draft.

“When Jerome Ford transferred in,” Cain said, “he (Denbrock) used him so many different ways it just helped him build his stock.

“That was so appealing to me. … He’s gonna keep everybody in involved in the offense, he’s gonna get guys in the game and be able to make plays.”

It helped make the call to go from Penn State to LSU a simple one, especially after Cain was denied the first time around.

Entering the transfer portal, Cain firmly believes, was a move he had to make.

And not just so he could return home.

It was so easy, in fact, Cain didn’t even inform his parents he had planned to put himself on college football’s open market.

“I was a man at this point. I was 21 years old, and I kind of knew what I wanted to do with the next step in my football journey,” he said. “When I got in the portal, and LSU had presented itself as an opportunity, I jumped on it immediately.

“I was blessed with other opportunities, but I didn’t feel like being ‘recruited.’ I already had (that) experience. I wanted to find a place that was just going to help me build my stock on the field and off the field, and no better place than to do it than LSU.”

The place he always wanted to be.

“Coming out high school, having the opportunity to go to different schools, LSU being my dream school, me not going to LSU, going to Penn State, being back at LSU – it just goes to show you you’ve just got to keep putting your head down and work,” Cain said. “You never know where God’s gonna lead you in life.

“Actually, when I ended up committing to come back home, it was just like” – Cains lets a quick, but noticeable, sigh of relief – “it was a surreal moment.”

‘IT’S BEEN A LONG JOURNEY’

So too was to move from Louisiana to Texas for a child too young – 4 or 5 at the time – to fully appreciate the gravity of Hurricane Katrina’s arrival.

“It was a pretty traumatic experience, just moving away from my dad,” he said. “My parents got separated. Being in Dallas and having a new start.

“But I was always down here. I was always out here every summer, every holiday, so it was kind of just me going to school out there.

“Just looking back on it now,” Cain added, “it’s been a long journey.”

One that’s come with as many rewards, though, as setbacks and surprises.

And there are plenty of the latter, including the bone-chilling cold a Northeastern fall can present.

“I played some games there I didn’t feel my feet,” Cain said.

Yet the pain was worth the gain, and in this instance it adequately prepped him for the next step – the SEC, as it’s happened, a league Cain hopes is another rung to where he really wants to be.

The NFL, that is.

“The Big Ten is a great, competitive conference as well, but the SEC, everybody knows, is like the mecca of college football,” Cain said. “That’s just what it is.”

Cain’s biggest takeaway from his Nittany Lions experience?

“Penn State, it grew me into a man. It really matured me,” he said. “I came in there as an early enrollee. I was blessed to get my degree (a bachelor’s in telecommunications) from there.

“Now, being at LSU, I (realize I) really learned a lot of things about myself that I didn’t know three years, three-and-a-half years ago.”

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