Penn State Football: 15 best running backs in Nittany Lions history

Saquon Barkley, Penn State Nittany Lions. (Photo by Evan Habeeb/Getty Images)
Saquon Barkley, Penn State Nittany Lions. (Photo by Evan Habeeb/Getty Images) /
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Heisman Trophy
Heisman Trophy. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images) /

John Cappelletti earns the top honor here for so many reasons. Let’s start with him being the only Heisman Trophy winner in school history. Cappelletti earned this award in his senior season of 1973, as he rushed for 1,522 yards on 286 carries for 17 touchdowns in 11 games.

He also rushed for over 1,000 yards in his junior season of 1972, as he scampered to 1,117 yards on 233 carries for 12 rushing touchdowns. In addition to be a Heisman winner, Cappelletti was a unanimous All-American in 1973, won the Maxwell Award and the Walter Camp Award in that campaign.

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He would parlay this into being the No. 11 overall pick in the 1974 NFL Draft by the Los Angeles Rams, where he would spend his first six NFL seasons.

Cappelletti played his final four NFL seasons with the then-San Diego Chargers before retiring in 1983.

Overall, Cappelletti finished his Penn State career with 519 carries for 2,639 and 29 touchdowns. He has his No. 22 jersey retired by his alma mater and was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1983.

All of his collegiate accolades make him a no-brainer decision here at No. 1, but Cappelletti’s Penn State legacy runs deeper than that.

All those statistics came in just two seasons. Keep in mind that true freshman were not able to play with the varsity, so that explains why he doesn’t have any numbers for 1970. But what about his 1971 NCAA season?

Well, Penn State had two elite running backs in their senior seasons in Franco Harris and Lydell Mitchell in 1971. So Cappelletti played defensive back on the 1971 Nittany Lions before heading to the backfield as an upperclassmen.

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Cappelletti’s numbers in the Penn State record books may eventually be lost to time, but he’ll always be the first Heisman Trophy winner in school history. Had Saquon Barkley won the Heisman in 2017, he might have had a claim for the top spot. For now, Cappelletti sits atop the highest perch among Penn State running backs. Maybe one day, someone will surpass him?