Savor this season: Guys this fun to watch don't come around often

You cover enough football, you stay in enough Midwest towns where all the hotels start to feel like the next. The travel can wear on you sometimes — and when your destination is Champagne, Illinois to watch one ho-hum-at-best team take on one that’s lackluster on its best day, it can be forgettable. Especially when big-time teams are playing elsewhere in the country, probably where the weather’s at least slightly better, too.

With that said, I was pretty bummed to miss out on going to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Championship last season. Big-time football had returned to Happy Valley and was going on the road to play for a title, and possibly a berth in the four-team playoff. 

As I watched from my couch, I couldn’t help but think as Penn State mounted its comeback two hours or so after getting hammered to open the game: Where did this come from?

But by then we knew. It was still that unbelievable. Not because we thought Penn State’s roster wasn’t capable of this, but because everything seemed to come together for the Nittany Lions in a quick, meteoric rise. To steal a cliché, the stars aligned. And suddenly, there Penn State was in Pasadena, and it all seemed to fly by — just as Saquon Barkley flew by USC defender after defender on his wild Rose Bowl touchdown run that’ll be forever shown on Penn State highlight films.

You know what? Barkley’s career is flying by, too. This could — and likely will — be it for No. 26. He’s getting preseason Heisman Trophy hype and has nearly all the tools to step onto an NFL gridiron and make those guys miss on Sundays.

Savor it. Guys who are this fun to watch just don’t come around too often. 

Two years ago, the then true-freshman Barkley was banged up. He was missing games. It got to the point where reporters were asking James Franklin at practice if Barkley would go simply because they missed his frenetic, tackle-breaking, Tasmanian Devil running style. 

Let’s appreciate that for a bit, eh?

Barkley gains the edge like no other back Penn State’s had in years. He beats defenders to the edge using his free arm like a cheetah flicks its tail to keep balanced when bounding for its prey. Once to the outside, few have a chance. Ask Maryland’s Will Likely, who became one of a handful of players Barkley turned into a human high hurdle, leaping over him for extra yards. Sometimes he spins, right or left, to make someone miss. Other times, like in the game-sealing touchdown run against Minnesota, he just needs one cut to juke a safety or linebacker out of his cleats. 

He throws a pretty mean stiff-arm, and has a dead-leg move where he stutter-steps, and that slight delay is all he needs to make the most athletic of players whiff. When he’s used all those tricks — and sometimes all in the same run — Barkley will finish you off. Don’t let his razzle-dazzle fool you. He runs mean.

I rarely remember the first time a player was noticeable to me, but I won’t forget the first time I saw Barkley in a Penn State uniform.

It was spring practice, probably the third or fourth one open to reporters in 2015. Barkley had enrolled early to get the practice time and an early start on school. I happened to be watching the starting offense go at the starting defense. Christian Hackenberg turned around and handed the ball to No. 26. I had to double-check to make sure that, indeed, the number had been assigned to the rookie.

From my angle at about the 35, it looked like an inside run with the team attacking from the opposing 45. Barkley bounced it outside right away using a spin move to do around a collapsing pocket. Once on the edge he spun again — around Brandon Bell.

The second spin move put him dangerously close to the sideline, and a defender appeared to have him angled out of bounds. Barkley could’ve stepped out for a nice gain (this was spring practice after all, with the real season months away). Instead, he spun again, this time to the inside where the defender — hard-hitting Marcus Allen — was waiting, disciplined to not over-pursue. But Barkley wasn’t worried about getting tackled. As he spun, he lowered his shoulder into Allen and exploded through the veteran to finish what was about a 20-yard run. The pop from the pads and helmets was jarring. A few others looked up. I jotted down a note:

Barkley. Whoa. Shifty and mean.

Over the last two years I’ve talked to Barkley a lot. I can tell you that the mean only comes out when he’s got a helmet on. He’s as humble as they come and a team-first player. He’s hard on himself because doing his job means the world to him.

Sooner rather than later, he’ll be working for another team. Take this season and savor the memories Barkley’s creating for you.

 

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