Barkley, Huff and their pursuit of the Heisman Trophy

UNIVERSITY PARK — For all of Penn State’s storied history, the program has only one Heisman Trophy winner.

For me, I’ve always found that to be an endearing stat. Focus on the team, and everything else will take care of itself. Many coaches, including at Penn State, have had mantras that in essence, say that.

This includes the current coaching staff, and players can recite it word-for-word. “With team success, comes individual recognition.”

There’s plenty of both for Penn State this season, and it’s looking more and more like the school’s Heisman Trophy club will double later this year. 

If Saquon Barkley officially became the Heisman Trophy front-runner with his incredible leap over an Iowa defender last month, then his spectacular kick return touchdown against Indiana the following week was the moment the Heisman clearly became his to lose.

These two plays are just the latest examples in a short-lived career — Barkley still hasn’t played three complete seasons in college — and perhaps the biggest question remaining for the standout running back is will he become just the second player in Penn State history to win the Heisman Trophy?

The answer is certainly trending toward “yes.”

With that in mind, let’s look at Barkley’s Heisman pursuit with three questions:

How did we get here?

Barkley wasn’t originally set to be a Nittany Lion. He initially planned to attend Rutgers, though he de-committed from the Scarlet Knights, arriving at Penn State and making an impact as a true freshman in 2015.

Barkley led the team with 1,076 rushing yards, breaking D.J. Dozier’s program record for freshmen. But as a team, Penn State struggled through a 7-6 season, and offensive coordinator John Donovan was fired shortly after the regular season.

That gave way to the Joe Moorhead era, and well, let’s just say it’s worked out well for both sides.

Barkley burst onto the national scene as a sophomore in 2016, racking up highlight plays as Penn State roared through an 11-3 season, winning nine consecutive games and the program’s first Big Ten title since 2008. That led to the Rose Bowl, where Barkley’a 79-yard touchdown immediately become one of the most talk-about plays during the entire college football season. It’s always worth a look, and you can check it out on GoPSUsports’ YouTube page

Heisman buzz swirled around campus and the entire State College community before that, and especially since, though not so much in the Penn State program. Here’s how running backs coach Charles Huff described it earlier this summer:

“I know a lot of people probably think we talk about it every day, but we’ve talked about it one time,” Huff said matter-of-factly.

This was the entire the conversation, relayed by Huff:

Huff: “Do you want to win the Heisman?”

Barkley: “Yes.”

After Huff heard that answer, he told Barkley he’d hold him to that standard with everything they do moving forward. And also noteworthy, is that it mirrored a conversation that they had when Penn State was recruiting Barkley. Even as a high school athlete, Barkley possessed that goal, and Huff said that’s a question that they ask every running back they recruit.

It takes a certain caliber of player to go after the Heisman, and in Barkley, Penn State got its guy.

Barkley defers to his teammates the way a younger brother defers to his older siblings, routinely saying he’s more impressed with their accomplishments than his own. In an era of nonstop social media posts, selfies, and look-at-me attitudes, Barkley is easy to root for, and for all the right reasons.

But underneath that cool exterior, lies a determination that’s atypical, even in the hyper-competitive world of college football.

“He’s a humble kid, but he’s got a fire burning inside to be the best, and his fire burns internally — not externally,” Huff said. “He wants to say that, ’I’m the all-time leading rusher at Penn State,’ not so in 15 years he can come back and everybody claps when he comes in the building, but so he can say ‘I went somewhere and I worked extremely hard, and now because of my hard work, I own the record.’”

Barkley’s currently seventh all-time at Penn State with 3,146 rushing yards, with Dozier (3,227) next on the list, and Evan Royster sitting at No. 1 with 3,932. With six games remaining in the regular season, and a possible seventh with the Big Ten title game, Barkley’s on track to claim the record before the Heisman Trophy is presented on Dec. 10.

What’s happened since the season opener?

Well, a lot.

Penn State and Barkley entered the season with the program’s highest expectations in arguably two-plus decades, and they haven’t disappointed. The Nittany Lions are ranked No. 3 in the AP poll, and Barkley has become synonymous with the Heisman Trophy, leaping (literally and figuratively) his way over a crowded field of superstars to become the talk of the college football world.

As much as Barkley and his team have helped his cause, other contenders have shrunk from the conversation by their own poor play. Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson, who won the Heisman last year, threw a late interception that sealed a loss in a nationally televised game against North Carolina State last week, and Southern California quarterback Sam Darnold failed to throw a touchdown in a recent 30-27 loss to Washington State. Darold finished just 15-for-29 with 164 yards and an interception.

There are other contenders, as there always are, but it doesn’t feel like anyone is close to Barkley. That’s largely because Barkley’s already had a handful of plays, any which of one could be the play that wins him the Heisman.

The leap over Iowa.

The 85-yard touchdown catch against Georgia State.

The kick return touchdown against Indiana.

The touchdown throw. Also against Indiana.

The one-handed grab out of the backfield, and then the mid-field juke past a defender. Also against Indiana.

There’s a case to be made that even if Penn State misses out on a repeat Big Ten title and appearance in the College Football Playoff, Barkley’s already assembled a body of work that’ll surpass everyone else.

Add in that he’s averaging an FBS-leading 148 all-purpose yards per game, a stat that likely won’t change as the season progresses and he continues returning kicks, and the #HappyValleyHeisman hashtag that Penn State Athletics has been promoting will likely come true.

How has Coach Huff impacted Barkley?

Speaking with the group of rushers this preseason, it became convincingly clear how much they respect Huff, particularly Barkley.

“You can’t demand greatness from a player without demanding greatness from yourself,” Barkley said, referring to Huff’s expectations, both for Barkley and himself. “I think we push each other to the limit every single day, and we demand each other’s best from each other.

“Coach Huff is an unbelievable coach, and I’m so thankful for him.”

There’s a sense that they see one another as true colleagues, and not just player and coach. And Barkley’s stature as a Heisman Trophy candidate has impacted Huff, with the coach saying he’s found extra motivation.

He’ll stay later, talk to coaches around the NFL — he coached one year with the Buffalo Bills — and he also hit up Penn State track and field/cross country coach John Gondak for advice. The conversation with Gondak led to Barkley doing extra sand work this offseason, with the running back saying that’s helped him become lighter and quicker, along with driving his knee better.

Every little advantage or edge helps, and if anything can be gained, Huff will see it.

“It helps to motivate me as a coach when you start to see them do work, when you start to see them ask questions, and you see them being humble,” Huff said. “It challenges me to make sure I get up and get here on time and do extra work. What I don’t want to do is let him say that’s his objective (winning the Heisman), and then I don’t do everything I can to help him reach that.”

Added head coach James Franklin:

“I ask these guys to be the head coach of their position, and he’s done an unbelievable job. They have a really strong culture in their room, and they have really high standards. Those guys do not miss class. (If they do), they have to deal with Huff. He’s built a real strong standard from that standpoint.

“The way they practice, the way they support each other, the way they encourage each other, he’s done a really good job of building a standard in his room, and they’ve all bought into it.”

Barkley chief among them. For him, it’s never about him. It’s about the built in support system, the greater good, and most specifically, about all the other guys.

Historically, the Heisman Trophy has been given to the best player on the best team. Barkley’s too modest to ever put himself in that first category, even if he so obviously fits the description. That second one, however, he had no hesitation when I asked him earlier this year how much he sees his own success as team success.

Here’s what he said, completely confident and with no doubt. Football, according to Barkley:

“I’m a firm believer that football is the greatest game ever played because it’s an 11-man sport. Even if a guy makes seven or eight guys miss, there’s something that went on in that play: someone made a right block, someone sprung you open, someone made the right pass, that guy made a perfect catch. It’s not just one guy doing something on his own.”

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