With a talent like Saquon Barkley at running back, Penn State typically doesn’t have to ask much more from its backups than a consistent change of pace or a breather here and there.
James Franklin has three extremely talented reserves at his disposal that have garnered ample experience — Mark Allen, Andre Robinson, and Miles Sanders. However, none of the three have quite yet solidified themselves as the primary option off the bench.
The trio had very even numbers last year, as Sanders tallied 25 carries while Allen and Robinson (no, not Allen Robinson) logged 29 rushes apiece. Robinson’s season far and away led the reserves with six total touchdowns (one receiving).
Sanders’ quick-strike ability stands out, as he returned kicks for much of last season and scored a receiving touchdown on one of his two receptions for the year. With all three players capable of stepping into the main backup role, the question now becomes, “Who should it be?”
Ethan Kasales — Mark Allen
Allen, an elusive redshirt junior out of Hyattsville, Md., brings the most experience to the group outside of Barkley, and has shown he can be a major threat in the receiving game. You can’t teach the type of vision that fueled that filthy cutback near the goal line.
Franklin has often discussed how important it is to have guys on the team like Allen and safety Marcus Allen, who keep energy high in practice and on game days. Like Darren Sproles, Allen’s smaller 5-foot-6 stature makes it tougher for defenders to wrap him up in the open field. He’s a constant threat to slip through tackles and pick up extra yards, like he did on one fourth down last weekend.
Mitch Stewart — Andre Robinson
Robinson has already proven why he should be trusted near the goal line, as he visited it six times in 2016. Meanwhile, Allen and Sanders had just two each. Robinson exploded down the sideline to the house on a swing route during last weekend’s Blue-White Game. He’s not just a bruiser, he can do a little bit of everything.
With another offseason in the weight room, Robinson has looked much stronger as a complete back this spring, bringing more consistency to the table than the highly touted Sanders during his freshman year. Robinson was also more secure with the ball than Sanders, who coughed it up four times for three turnovers last fall.
On his first career touchdown in this September’s 34-27 win over Temple, he shows off his brute strength, running right over the Owl defender for six.
Admittedly, Sanders still has the highest ceiling of the trio of tailbacks. If he’s able to fix his fumbling issues, he could close the gap rather quickly in his second year with the program. For now, Franklin and company should make sure the number two running back is still ‘Dre.
Dylan Coughlin: Miles Sanders
It’s no secret that Sanders is electric every time he touches the ball. He made some impressive plays last season that really showed just how dynamic of a runner he is. Sanders delivered a 57-yard scamper against Rutgers – his season long – and the above 25-yard touchdown in the 38-14 Homecoming victory over Maryland.
The young tailback did have some ball control issues, but that can easily be attributed to a freshman going through the growing pains of a Big Ten schedule. In his second season, I believe that Sanders will fix those issues and prove to be a legit No. 2 back that has the ability to break off a big play behind Saquon Barkley.
Allen and Robinson will most likely still be used in short-yardage and goal-line opportunities like last year. But after Barkley tires a defense out and needs a breather, Sanders can be the home-run hitter from the backfield that his counterparts can’t really replicate.