Noah Cain, the Penn State transfer running back, traveled more than 1,200 miles to get to LSU. He has lived most of his life outside the state of Louisiana.
But he never let any other state define him.
“When I was in Texas, everybody was like, ‘You a Texas kid,’ and I’d always stop and correct them like, ‘Get it straight: I’m from Louisiana,’ ” Cain said.
To Cain, who moved to Denton, Texas, after Hurricane Katrina, Louisiana was family. It’s where he spent every holiday and most of his summers. On his journey, every other stop — Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania — was just a detour on his way back home to play at his dream school: LSU.
His mom, Tonya, doesn’t know what it is about this place. She said he probably should give Texas more credit, since he spent 10 years there. But everything about Louisiana ignited a special spark in him and when he was there. He would film his grandparents cooking gumbo, or himself going to an LSU football camp.
And after a three-year career at Penn State, Cain saw an opportunity to finally return to his roots.
“When he said, ‘Coach Frank (Wilson) is at LSU, and I think it will be good for me,’ I’m like, ‘Well, Noah, you haven’t steered us wrong at any age,” Tonya said. “None of his decisions have steered him wrong, so we supported him fully.”
Early football career
Cain’s life in football blossomed from a young age. When he was 12, he captured the eye of Wilson, then LSU's running backs coach, at an LSU summer camp. Every year, Cain moved up a grade level to play with the big boys.
John Walsh, then the head football coach at powerhouse Denton Guyer High School, said he recognized Cain’s talent from middle school. After seeing him break seven tackles during a game his freshman season, Walsh started him the rest of the year in Texas’ highest classification (6A).
“I’m a ’90s Cowboys guy, so a lot of other qualities when you’re watching Emmitt Smith run — having balance, vision and being patient — that’s what makes him special,” Walsh said.
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After two years of dominance in Texas — he rushed for 2,766 yards on an 8.6 yard average, earning a four-star rating along the way — Cain went to IMG Academy in Florida.
It was even farther from both of his homes, Baton Rouge and Dallas. But it was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up, competing with some of the best players in the country against a national schedule.
“You have to be real and look at everything: Are these guys on the other side true linebackers, true defensive backs?” said his father, Terence. “That's the difference when you have a school like IMG. You have guys who would play their position. They have football IQ for that, and that’s what you see at the next level.”
During his junior and senior seasons at IMG, Cain combined for 985 yards on 158 carries, averaging more than 6.2 yards per carry. Despite sharing reps, his name elevated. He rose in the 247Sports composite rankings to the No. 69 overall prospect nationally.
But while at IMG, Cain also learned the business of recruiting and how to look practically at his future. Although LSU had an offer on the table, it already had two committed running backs: Ty Davis-Price and John Emery Jr., players he knew well from his summers training in Baton Rouge. (He was roommates with Emery at the Nike Opening camp.)
“It was an emotional decision, coming out of high school and having the opportunity to go to different schools, LSU being my dream school, and ending up at Penn State,” Cain said. “Just goes to show you’ve got to put your head down and work. You never know where God is going to lead you in life.”
The decision paid off. Cain was an early enrollee at Penn State and played as a true freshman, gaining 443 yards on a 5.3-yard average.
That's where another roadblock came in.
Both parents said that though they love the moments when he shined, they also were most proud of watching him put in the work to overcome a foot injury he suffered in 2020. In his final season as a Nittany Lion, he showed flashes of his old self again. Though is yards-per-carry average dipped to 3.3, he displayed more versatility, gaining 464 yards from scrimmage (350 rushing, 114 receiving).
In the season opener at Wisconsin last year, he ran for 82 yards and a touchdown. He motioned for Tonya to come down from the stands, and when they embraced, they cried.
“I learned a lot of things about myself that I didn't know three, 3½ years ago,” Cain said. “It gave me a different approach.”
Nearly finished with his degree at Penn State, Cain decided he wanted something different. (He is considered a junior at LSU because of the extra year of COVID-19 eligibility.) Just days after he entered the transfer portal, a familiar face reached out — Frank Wilson, who had been hired back at LSU under new head coach Brian Kelly.
“I jumped on it immediately,” Cain said. “I was blessed with other opportunities, but I didn’t feel like getting recruited. I already had that experience.”
All those years away from home made the opportunity so much sweeter.
“He kept saying, ‘I can’t believe it. I can’t believe this is real,’ ” Tonya said.
Cain spent the spring finishing his degree in telecommunications at Penn State, staying in touch with LSU’s spring football meetings over Zoom. And during the second day of preseason practice, he took reps with the first-team offense, competing alongside a member of that crowded LSU running back class he didn’t join in 2019 — Emery.
“All I needed was just an opportunity to come in and compete for a spot,” Cain said. “This tradition LSU has had at running back year in, year out, putting guys in the league — I want to be a part of that bridge.”