Saquon Barkley Talks Freshman Breakout, New Offense Ahead Of Media Day
Sophomore running back Saquon Barkley has barely been on campus for a full calendar year, but already he’s become the face of the Penn State program.
The gravity-defying hurdles and highlight-reel touchdowns catapulted Barkley into the national spotlight, but No. 26 has hardly let that get to his head. He’s simply going about his business this summer trying to get better with each workout, film study, and player-organized practice.
“Last camp, I was just focusing on not messing up and trying to do the best I could to make sure I didn’t get redshirted,” Barkley said. “Now, [I’m just trying] to work hard and be a great teammate and trying to become a leader of this program.”
But before he ever stepped foot on campus, or even laced it up for his electrifying senior season at Whitehall High School in Whitehall, Pa., Barkley proved to himself two summers ago that he could compete with the nation’s top athletes at Nike’s The Opening.
“The Opening experience really shaped me as a better player and prepared me more for college and my senior season,” Barkley said. “At the time, I was the 60th-ranked running back in the country and some people probably thought I shouldn’t have been there. I wanted to make an impact, I wanted to make a statement that I belong here.”
Fast forward to Sept. 12, 2015, where on a dreary Saturday afternoon Barkley emphatically delivered his statement.
After receiving one carry and officially burning his redshirt against Temple, Barkley famously burst onto the scene against the Buffalo Bulls with a hurdle that seemingly took the college football landscape by storm. Barkley would finish the afternoon with 12 carries for 115 yards and his first career touchdown. During the primetime Stripe Out against Rutgers — the program he once verbally committed to not too long ago — Barkley exploded for a career-high 195 rushing yards and two scores.
Despite missing contests against Army and Indiana, Barkley remained determined to become Penn State’s all-time leading freshman rusher — a feat he accomplished in the regular-season finale at Michigan State. With 1,237 all-purpose yards and eight touchdowns already under his belt, Barkley is poised to reach new heights this fall. Though becoming versed in the nuances of a new offensive system might seem daunting for some players, learning new offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead’s playbook has been part of the fun for the 5-foot-11, 223-pounder and his fellow running backs heading into camp.
“Going from being under center to shotgun every time is a little different. You’ve got to be really consistent with your footwork. We love playing in our new offense,” Barkley said. “What [Coach Moorhead’s] offense does is get playmakers in space. Everything he’s doing is trying to get the running back one-on-one with the safety or with the corner.”
Moorhead’s system capitalizes on the element of surprise, which is something Barkley feels could add a new facet to a Penn State offense that, if not for Barkley’s show-stopping performances in 2015, would’ve remained mediocre at best during conference play last year.
“About five times a game we should catch the defense off-guard when they’re not ready, if we’re doing our job. Those five plays can turn into big gains. We have a lot of skill guys that can make plays.”
Barkley isn’t the only running back on Penn State’s roster who can make defenders wish they placed more emphasis on conditioning. At 5-foot-7, redshirt sophomore Mark Allen brings a little Darren Sproles to the table.
“Mark is one of the quickest guys I’ve ever seen in my life. I’ve been quoted on that one in numerous articles,” Barkley said.
Joining Allen in the running back stable is redshirt freshman Andre Robinson, who set the school touchdown record at Bishop McDevitt in nearby Harrisburg, besting Buffalo Bills All-Pro running back LeSean McCoy’s mark. Robinson is the bruiser of the group; the thunder to Saquon and Mark’s lightning, if you will.
“Andre, if I had to compare him to one back, it would be Marshawn Lynch,” Barkley said. “The way he runs; not the fastest guy, not the quickest guy, but just when you hit him, you’re gonna feel it and it’s gonna be hard to bring him down.”
Then there’s five-star true freshman Miles Sanders, considered the top high school running back in the nation for the Class of 2016. Just like Barkley before him, many believe Sanders is simply too good to redshirt.
“Miles is really explosive, like extremely explosive. I haven’t seen him with pads on in real life, but if I had to go off his high school tape, he’s quick too, and he’s elusive,” Barkley said. “He’s a guy that can make you miss and he does show a little power here and there too.”
A cynic would view Penn State’s running back situation as congested, but Barkley views it in a different light; the rising sophomore feeds off the competition, using it as a form of motivation.
“Those three guys are really, really good backs. [They’re] pushing me to become a better back and I can’t lay back and think the starting job is won,” Barkley said. “I’ve got three dogs behind me that are trying to take my spot.”
Growing up, Barkley had a number of different professional influences he tried to model his playing style off of. Though he’s just scratching at the surface of his potential, the similarities between him and some of the game’s greats are too glaring to deny — just ask any member of Ohio State’s defense.
“I used to watch Barry Sanders YouTube videos,” Barkley said. “I’m a Jets fan, so I loved Curtis Martin. Now, I would say, AP (Adrian Peterson), Le’Veon Bell. I love Matt Forte’s style.”
He also isn’t shy to compare himself to the top talent in college football at his position in hopes of improving his own array of electrifying moves.
“I love watching [Leonard] Fournette from LSU, [Christian] McCaffrey, [Dalvin] Cook, and Myles Gaskin. Also, a healthy Nick Chubb. I love the way that Nick Chubb runs,” Barkley said. “Even though we’re all competing to be the top backs in the country, I still watch them, I still watch their film. You can take stuff from their game and even add to your game to try to be more versatile.”
Though Barkley’s been showered with compliments and praise from just about every Penn Stater he comes across, words of encouragement from some of Penn State’s most decorated running backs have stuck out. For Barkley, it built confidence. As a young man still acclimating to his newfound superstardom, it meant the world knowing he’s got the support of players who made Penn State synonymous with greatness.
“Ki-Jana Carter reached out to me on Twitter,” Barkley said. “Blair Thomas talked to me. Franco Harris did a nice interview about me, so that was a lot of motivation to see some of the greats of all time mention my name.”
Looking back on his first season, one play in particular stands out above the rest: His famous one-cleated touchdown against Illinois. But Barkley made sure to clarify one misconception about how his shoe actually came off in the end zone.
“I just jumped and it felt like I was flying for a little bit,” Barkley said. “That’s what people misstate, I didn’t fly out of my shoe. The real thing that happened is when I jumped over the guy, the safety came and landed on me. When I landed, I was trying to get up fast and he still had my ankle. I ripped off my whole shoe just trying to get up.”
With his second preseason camp only two weeks away, Barkley is focused on improving the little things — like pass-blocking — in order to elevate his game to the next level.
2015 was just the appetizer. Barkley has big things in store for year two.