IMG Academy (Bradenton, Fla.) running backs Noah Cain and Trey Sanders would seem to be natural rivals.
The elite running backs, accustomed to being the focus of their previous schools’ offenses, now split carries for the Ascenders, ranked No. 1 in the Way Too Early Preseason Super 25 rankings.
Somehow it works as the two have forged a friendship that has grown stronger, thanks to football and fried chicken. They’re even talking about possibly signing with the same college.
Cain came to IMG last season fresh off a sophomore year at Guyer (Denton, Texas) where he ran for 1,249 yards and 12 touchdowns. Sanders came to IMG two seasons ago after running for more than 1,000 yards as a freshman at Port St. Joe, Fla.
Last season, the two, along with current Oklahoma freshman T.J. Pledger, combined to run for 1,518 yards and 18 touchdowns. Cain, listed as the No. 5 running back in the Chosen 25 list of 2019 backs, had 86 carries for 524 yards and six touchdowns and Sanders, listed as the No. 2 back in 2019, had 76 carries for 704 yards and 10 touchdowns.
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Instead of bemoaning their lack of carries, they say they are saving their best football for college or the NFL.
“Really after my sophomore year, it wasn’t about stats,” Cain said. “It was about preparing for college and I started focusing on that. From an outside-looking-in standpoint, it seems really crazy, with two backs splitting time and not getting to shine, but from a maturity standpoint and getting to do everything I wanted to do, it was a great decision for me.”
IMG coach Kevin Wright said that platooning the duo helps him always have a fresh running back in the game.
“If you can split carries with guys who can both play and continue to have a fresh running back in the game, it’s going to help you from an offensive standpoint,” Wright said. “They will take fewer hits over the course of the season, which gives them a chance to be healthy and help your team.”
Sanders says he thinks the two could even split time at the same college.
“If we go to the same college, we could save our legs, so I feel like it would be a good decision for both of us,” he said. “If we end up at different colleges, I always think we would be successful.”
Sanders said it may make sense for the two to end up at LSU, where Cain has family ties or somewhere like Texas, where quarterback Sam Ehlinger was the leading rusher for the Longhorns last season.
“We talk about Texas and LSU the most,” Sanders said. “He’s from Baton Rouge, so it would be a honor for him to bring that National Championship home. On top of that, you can play in front of your friends and family. With Texas, they don’t have any running backs, so we could go in and dominate right away.”
Cain is more cautious about the likelihood of the two playing together at the next level.
“Probably the Texas or Georgia situations right now would be the most likely places we could both go, the way it’s looking,” Cain said. “It has to be the right situation. The O Line is important and the quarterback is important. We have to see what is best for the both of us.”
Sanders has made an unofficial visits to Alabama, Florida, Florida State and Texas, and said he’s hearing most from those schools, along with Georgia and Oklahoma and that he hopes to hear more from LSU.
Cain, like Sanders, plans to finish his official visits this fall and decide by December.
“I’ll put out my top list in two or three weeks and come out with a blueprint of where my officials will be,” he said.
Cain is 5-10 and 209 pounds and runs with a more punishing style than the 6-foot, 216-pound Sanders.
“He’s a powerful back,” Sanders said. “I’ve seen him carry somebody and stiff arm somebody at the same time,. I’ve never done that. I may be a little shiftier.”
Wright concurs that may be a correct assessment, but he is comfortable using either back in any situation.
“There’s probably minimal difference between the two,” Wright said. “Noah is traditionally more of a downhill between-the-tackles guy who always falls forward. He always gains yards after contact. I think that Trey is a bit more of edge guy. He’s shown the ability to be a home run hitter and he doesn’t need much. Really, what we do doesn’t change when one guy or the other goes in the game. Both of those kids are good in pass protection.”
Their position coach at IMG is former NFL running back Cadillac Williams, who while at Auburn, formed, along with Ronnie Brown, one of the best one-two punches the Tigers have had.
“He’s done a good job of coaching them on their fundamentals,” Wright said. “They have had to buy into the philosophy where it doesn’t matter which one carries the ball. They get it and it’s just a matter of them continuing to improve.”
When they’re not playing, they have plenty in common, not the least of which is food.
“We both like Popeye’s,” Cain said. “We like fried chicken. We both love our Hibachi Grill too, but that’s expensive, so we only eat that once in a blue moon.”