The 2017 Penn State backfield could showcase the most explosive reserve committee in all of college football.
Heisman hopeful Saquon Barkley will be leading the pack coming off a season in which he ran for nearly 1,500 yards. He added 18 rushing touchdowns, over 400 receiving yards, and another four receiving scores, but it’s the athletes behind him who could be the key to the Nittany Lions’ continued offensive success. Barkley is the jack of all trades, but the NFL can start calling after next season, and it’s important to look at the guys behind him who mustn’t be forgotten.
Running backs Miles Sanders, Andre Robinson, and Mark Allen will be key contributors to an offense that found new life under OC Joe Moorhead. The trio could even rename itself after the heralded musical group Earth, Wind, and Fire.
Andre Robinson is the next running back in the stable of talent that Penn State possesses. The former Bishop McDevitt standout is more of a big, bruising-type back compared to the speedy and more elusive Sanders. Stepping in a 5-foot-9, 215 pounds, Robinson runs north and south by putting his head down and fighting for that extra yardage.
He finished the year with 29 carries for 141 yards and five touchdowns. Robinson piled up most of his scores on either short-yardage situations or through the air like he did to put the icing on the cake against Michigan State.
It’s important not to forget Mark Allen. The redshirt sophomore hasn’t seen as much action as Robinson or Sanders, but he’s definitely made the most of his opportunities. Between the 2015 and 2016 seasons, Allen has compiled 56 carries for 213 yards and two touchdowns. His 27-yard swing pass to the house against Rutgers featured plenty of ankle-breaking moves along the way. Allen is not overwhelming in size, standing 5-foot-7, but if anything, his smaller stature makes it harder for defenders to pick him up. With Barkley the unquestioned starter and Robinson and Sanders getting a majority of the remaining touches, Allen is waiting in the wings for his chances.
Former five-star recruit and rising sophomore Miles Sanders showed flashes of why he was one of the most sought-after running backs in the country coming out of high school. The 5-foot-11, 205-pounder displayed his speed in the running and passing game, but also showed his acceleration on kickoffs. There is no denying that Sanders is a special talent when you watch him play, but the freshman went through some struggles this year, most notably coughing up the ball against Michigan after an explosive 16-yard run.
Sanders finished the season with 25 carries for 184 yards and a touchdown. He also added two catches for 24 yards and another score. Returning kickoffs was where Sanders’ presence was felt the most, however. The Pittsburgh native brought back 33 kicks for 688 yards and almost always seemed to be one block away from busting loose. It was obvious that Sanders went through some growing pains as a true freshman, but Franklin’s trust in the young back never wavered and his role should continue to increase in 2017.
With receiver Chris Godwin entering the NFL Draft, it’s going to be the running backs who need to help this Nittany Lion offense pick up where it left off in spring practice.