The news hit yesterday like a ton of bricks—even with the troublesome foreshadowing suggesting it may be inevitable. Penn State Nittany Lions running back Journey Brown announced his retirement from the game just a short time after it was revealed that Brown would not be able to play this season due to an undisclosed medical condition. That medical condition has been revealed; he was diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy after it was stumbled upon during a "routine" COVID-19 test, according to head coach James Franklin.
"It was discovered through a routine COVID-19 test, although it is not COVID-related," said Franklin. "We learned about this in early September, and we've been working through this and dealing with this as a team. Journey is one of the most popular and respected players on our team.
"The entire organization has rallied behind Journey and his family."
Rightfully so. For as easy as it was to enjoy Brown on the gridiron, it is just as easy to root for him as a person. This is an awfully short stick to draw in the game of life. Brown's health, happiness, and future will rightfully take precedence over the bright future he had on the football field—and as time passes, Brown will hopefully find his next passion and calling or, alternatively, the next chapter of football in his life.
But while Brown celebrates his journey and aligns himself for a new destination, the show in Happy Valley will go on amid the Nittany Lions' struggles to get their footing in 2020. Penn State's program sits at 0-3 after their latest loss, an embarrassing 35-19 decision at home to an upstart Maryland Terrapins program. Brown's presence certainly would have changed the outlook of Penn State's offense and it appears that without him as a key cog in the wheel, the Lions aren't sure what direction they must pivot to. The same can currently be said for the 2021 running back class, as well.
At the end of the summer, Brown was a widely applauded prospect who was deemed to offer plenty of potential to the pro game. But with Brown transitioning to the next chapter of his life, it opens a big void in the class for who will step into a top-five running back position in this year's class. The top of the group should be considered status quo. Clemson's Travis Etienne and Alabama's Najee Harris figure to be the top two running backs off the board and have been consensus top prospects at the position since the summer. But behind them? It's currently dealer's choice.
Oklahoma State back Chuba Hubbard has been fine—but the encore performance he's produced on the heels of a 2,000-rushing-yard campaign in 2019 hasn't really sold anyone that he's the next back in line behind Etienne and Harris. Mississippi State's Kylin Hill is in a similar position, although his season is confirmed to be over after just 15 rushes and 58 yards after it became clear that Hill wasn't a fit for new head coach Mike Leach's Air Raid offense. Hill won't have that problem in the pros, but he's only proven to be a feature player with high-volume potential in one season as well. Memphis back Kenny Gainwell is another fascinating name, but he's yet another back who won't touch the field this year after opting out early to protect his health ahead of the 2021 NFL Draft process.
A few productive contenders have arisen and have the potential to fill the void in as "Tier 2" running backs in this year's 2021 class. One such name is Minnesota running back Mohamed Ibrahim. The Gophers have leaned heavily on him as a featured player. He's totaled 103 touches in just three games this season and accounted for 619 yards and 10 touchdowns in those three games; he's surpassed his yardage and scoring output from all of 2019 and done so with 14 less touches than he logged all of last season. Ibrahim is making a strong statement in the Big Ten that he can be a viable primary ball-carrier, but his resume features some reasonable questions about his competency as a pass-catcher. In two and a half seasons in Minnesota, he's logged just 13 receptions.
The NFL's next best hope for feature backs may be a super-duo from Chapel Hill: North Carolina's Michael Carter and Javonte Williams. Through seven games this season, the duo of Carter and Williams has accounted for 1,908 yards from scrimmage and 23 touchdowns. Quarterback Sam Howell has some exciting weapons to throw to, but the Tar Heels offense goes as this duo does. And while Carter has been a stud this season and is averaging 7.3 yards per carry on a near 50/50 split with Williams, the latter has become the hot commodity. He's scored 17 touchdowns this season and averages 8.2 yards per touch (15.6 yards per catch on 15 receptions). And, according to our friends at Pro Football Focus, Williams logs 10-plus rushing yards on a whopping 28% of his carries this season.
The landscape of the 2021 running back class has shifted dramatically since the start of the 2020 college football season; Journey Brown's heartbreaking retirement only serves as the most prominent shift. But as you search for answers for who can fill the void, your best bet is to start in Chapel Hill.