Selfless running backs fuel Penn State's ground attack
UNIVERSITY PARK — Penn State’s rushing attack posted some big-time numbers last season. Even so, these stats still pop:
While trouncing Maryland 38-14 for a Homecoming victory, Saquon Barkley racked up a career-high 202 rushing yards, helping the Lions reach a total of 372 yards on the ground—the most for Penn State against an FCS or Big Ten team since 2002 and the third-highest total ever against a Big Ten opponent.
Late in the game against the Terrapins, touted freshman Miles Sanders bounced outside for a 25-yard touchdown, his first as a Nittany Lion. After crossing the goal line, Sanders didn’t stop running, taking off for the other side of the south end zone while teammates chased after. Speaking at this year’s media day, Sanders said he was so excited, that he wasn’t sure what else to do.
He wasn’t the only one giddy. After the game, here’s what Barkley said about seeing his teammates succeed:
“The reason why I get so excited is because you guys see us on Saturdays and see us in front of Beaver (Stadium), but you don’t see us during summer workouts, and camp, and winter workouts, and the grind we go through, and the pain we go through, and how hard it is, and how we come together,” Barkley said.
“We’re with each other every single day, and you’re basically like a family. So it’s like seeing your brother really going out there and making a play. That’s why I get excited for everyone to make a play. I think I get more excited when someone else makes a play, rather than myself, to be honest.”
It’s not unusual for Barkley to perk up when speaking about his teammates. He typically enjoys talking about his fellow Nittany Lions more than himself, and in that moment, he showed a glimpsed into why.
Barkley is unquestionably the leader of the running backs group. He’s a frontline Heisman Trophy candidate who can become Penn State’s all-time leading rusher by the end of the season, with running backs coach Charles Huff calling Barkley “the best player in the country.”
But when Barkley hypes up his backfield mates, he’s not just being diplomatic. Penn State’s roster of running backs has legit talent, and plenty of it.
In 2015, Sanders was named Mr. PA Football for Class AAA/AAAA (Woodland Hills High School). He arrived at Penn State as a heralded recruit from Pittsburgh and also earned a spot on the kick return team. Another Pennsylvania product, Andre Robinson (Bishop McDevitt High School), also contributed last year, scoring five rushing touchdowns and adding a 40-yard receiving score in the regular season finale against Michigan State; Robinson also ran for a touchdown against the Spartans in something of a breakout performance.
Mark Allen also had some late-season highlights, catching a 27-yard touchdown against Rutgers. Allen also scored one rushing touchdown last season.
So outside of pure talent, what makes Penn State’s rushers so successful, and what separates the Nittany Lions from other running back groups? We posed the question to several players and Huff.
Huff: “They care about each other and they push each other. I can honestly say every guy in that room likes each other, and I can’t say that everywhere. They all strive for each other’s success. So when one’s in the game, they’re all rooting for him. Yes, they want to be in the game, but they’re all rooting for him.”
Barkley: “I think what separates us is our work ethic. I think a lot people can speak to that. If you come into the weight room, you can see our numbers. Our numbers speak for themselves. We’re one of the strongest groups on our team, and I would argue that we’re one of the strongest groups in the country. It’s who we are. That’s how we work, and I think that’s what separates us. I think we work hard. We love each other like family, we all want each other to succeed, and when somebody does, we celebrate like family.”
Allen: “I honestly think it’s our chemistry, we’re not a selfish group. Whoever is succeeding at one point in time, we’re always helping that guy out, always there for the guy. We love each other, and we’re not selfish at all.”
These points about being selfless are especially important considering that Barkley (rightfully so) receives the bulk of playing time. As Huff said, it’s tough to take the best player in college football off the field. Managing the room and keeping players motivated is probably the toughest part of his job, he said, but when anybody goes into the game, they’re the starting running back. With Huff’s coaching style, they don’t see anyone as a backup.
Everyone needs to be ready, because when they go into the game, Huff said, “the standard is the same: to go in there, break tackles, get YAC (yards after contact), make big plays and put the ball in the end zone.”
This year is a little different in one area, because as Sanders pointed out, the number of running backs on the roster has risen to seven. “It’s more competitive,” he said. “We hold each other accountable and make each other better.”
That competition, Allen said, brings out the best in the entire group, and it’s what they need. Speaking earlier this summer, Robinson referenced a list that ranked the best running back groups in the country. Penn State was listed in the top five, but not at the top.
A somewhat arbitrary list in a sea of preseason rankings and tabulations, but it caught the Lions’ eyes, mostly because it serves as motivation. Not that they need it, but they want to leave zero doubt about where they stand against everyone else in the country.
“We have the same work mentality every day,” Robinson said. “We want to be No. 1, and we think we are No. 1. We want to be the best running backs group in the country, from top to bottom.”