Coming into Penn State last season as a true freshman, Miles Sanders was the most highly touted of any running back in the nation — a five-star prospect ranked No. 1 at his position in the 2016 recruiting class.
The issue for the Pittsburgh native in his debut season was producing; Sanders gained a reputation for being a big-play back averaging 14.2 yards per carry in his 13 games of action. But in a loaded backfield with Saquon Barkley, Andre Robinson, and Mark Allen, Sanders only took 25 carries while his biggest role on the field was as a kickoff return specialist.
That competition on coach James Franklin’s team is driving it forward and pushing younger guys like Sanders to take that extra step for more in-game opportunities.
“Competition on our team and in this country in general is a positive thing,” Franklin said. “I think we’re getting more of that. I think [Sanders] is just an example of that. I think the competition and the depth that we have at that position; you’d better come to work every single day, or other guys are going to pass you by and take your opportunities.”
Just by the look of him physically compared to last year, Sanders is clearly coming to work every single day.
He’s gained 19 pounds in the offseason — up to 224 lbs to pair with his 5-foot-11 stature. Part of that crucial growth is from the work he’s put in since the Rose Bowl, but part of it is also a natural growth that Franklin’s seen before.
“To be honest with you, we have plans when it comes to our strength and conditioning program or by position coach,” Franklin said. “But really, it’s genetics and Mother Nature. It’s funny, because sometimes we’ll recruit guys and they’ll say, `What am I going to play?’ or, `Am I going to be a defensive end or a defensive tackle?’ You know, Mother Nature and genetics is going to tell you that.”
Ahead of spring practice, Sanders won’t have to split many reps with Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year Barkley, who Franklin said won’t be as involved in the coming weeks much like he wasn’t in the run up to the last Blue-White game.
That leaves the on-going battle to Sanders, Robinson, and Allen. Each of the three provide different aspects to their game in the multi-back set — with Robinson useful as a power back in short yardage situations and Allen bringing the energy to Moorhead’s fast-paced offense — but there’s a statement Sanders can make to set himself apart and continue his ascent up the depth chart.
Sanders said he planned on using the winter and spring to improve his speed and strength. It’s safe to say strength is greater now for the back with that extra muscle mass, but his first real on-field test of speed will be during these integral practices.
As the only first year player getting reps in the backfield during the 2016 season, Sanders also has his first taste of college experience that he can use to build on and learn from. With the opportunity he got in the return game last season — those open field experiences also play a role in his development.
“I’m smarter on the field,” Sanders told PennLive ahead of the Rose Bowl. “I know the defense more — a little faster, and a little [more] explosive.”
For everything he’s shown so far and the progress he’s made, Franklin is confident that his rising sophomore back will continue to make strides.
“The guys that played a little bit and got a taste but now are able to use that experience and grow, where a redshirt freshman that has not played at all, he’s going to improve but he still needs to go through it,” Franklin said. “I think [Sanders] is going to learn from the positive experiences and the things that he did well, and things that he’s learned from.”