Saquon Barkley, Penn State's Soft-Spoken Superstar
Remember this number. It’s historically significant, and we’ll come back to it later. For now, let’s focus on the present and near future.
Following Penn State’s 42-39 setback to Pitt earlier this month at Heinz Field, sensational sophomore running back Saquon Barkley appeared through a door and took his place behind a podium.
I’m sure he was tired. Scoring five touchdowns —which Barkley did against the Panthers — will do that to you. He’d just completed a game that would constitute a season for some players.
But none of that mattered to Barkley, who said he’d rather score one touchdown and win (the result against Kent State in the season opener), than score five in a loss (which just happened). He’s not the first player to voice that sentiment, but what stands out is Barkley’s genuineness. And the way he constantly compliments his teammates. And the way he deflects all credit.
Barkley is a sophomore in name only.
The previous week, a reporter asked Barkley if he had any plays where he surprised himself with his talent. This was a follow-up to a preseason conversation in which Barkley said he doesn’t realize what he’s pulled off when he dazzles on the field. Or in Barkley’s words, when he has a play that fans and the media deem as noteworthy.
You have to remember, it’s not Barkley’s style to talk about himself. That leads us to his answer.
Barkley said “no.” Instead, he was impressed by teammates Mike Gesicki and DeAndre Thompkins, who slipped behind the secondary for a long touchdown and who hauled in a tough catch, respectively.
And here’s what he said about quarterback Trace McSorley, making his first career start.
“He did a great job. As a quarterback at Penn State, in front of that crowd, your first game can be nerve-wracking. I think he carried himself amazingly. The way he handled himself on the sidelines, he was very vocal, being a leader. He fought for yards and made a lot of plays for us.”
Kent State crowded near the line of scrimmage for most of the contest, meaning one defender was unaccounted for, as Barkley pointed out. “There’s only so much the offensive line can do,” he said, adding that as a leader, it’s on him to make that guy miss.
In training camp, Barkley wowed during the Lions Den Drill, which pits the offense versus the defense (4-on-4) in a contained space. He juked past everybody, and the resulting video gained huge traction on social media.
Even that couldn’t get him excited when asked about it. It was a small gain, and in practice, no less, Barkley said during training camp.
All of these instances when Barkley is asked to talk about himself have good and reasonable questions, and they strike to the heart of Barkley’s breakout career. Come on Saquon, the questions seem to beckon, tell us how good you are.
But Barkley doesn’t bite.
And in a way, I’m not surprised.
In my experience, the most impressive and accomplished people are usually the most modest.
See, superstars don’t actually have to tell you they’re a superstar. It’s obvious, and everyone can see it. That’s the case with Barkley.
Now, back to that number: 3,932.
It’s how many rushing yards Evan Royster amassed in his career, the most by any running back in Penn State history.
Granted, there are other running backs who (most likely) would’ve broken the record had they stayed all four years. Ki-Jana Carter, for example, ranks ninth all-time at Penn State, and easily was within striking distance. But he left after his junior year in 1994, when Penn State capped off that magical unbeaten season by upending Oregon in the Rose Bowl.
Still, Royster has the all-time mark. For now.
Watching Barkley during his breakout freshman campaign a year ago, he reminded me of another Penn State legendary running back: D.J. Dozier: two electric running backs with cool names and lots of game. Dozier held the long-time record for most rushing yards for a freshman at Penn State, which Barkley bested last season.
You see where I’m going, right?
Of course, all of this is a little nonsensical, and more than a little unfair.
By the end of the season’s first month, Barkley will have played in just 15 career games. And he’s still only 19 years old. Speaking with the media after the season-opening victory over Kent State, Barkley reminded everyone that when he was talking about Penn State being a young team, that discussion includes him.
Barkley has to remind you of that fact because he sounds, talks, acts and plays like a senior. And you get the sense he’d rather talk about his teammates than himself, because, well, he does.
It’s entirely possible that Barkley could finish the season as high as Penn State’s 14th all-time leading rusher (or perhaps a few spots above that). Charlie Pittman currently ranks 14th with 2,236 yards, and Barkley entered the year with 1,076.
However, to break down Barkley’s impact in only mere numbers is also unfair, because that isn’t seemingly what interests him.
During James Franklin’s weekly radio show early in the season, a guest asked Franklin about Barkley, whom the guest pointed out picks up blitzes well.
Franklin agreed, especially since running backs aren’t asked to focus on that in high school, he said. That was an adjustment for him, Franklin said, adding that Barkley cut too much in the opener against Kent State. He can be a physical ball carrier, and can attack defenders instead of running around them. He also wants to run and block well, in addition to contributing on special teams.
“Saquon wants to be a complete back,” Franklin told the crowd.
By the end of his Penn State career, that might mean breaking a ton of records.
Just don’t expect Barkley to tell you about it.
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