Penn State running back Saquon Barkley has been part of the conversation nearly the entire season. But that doesn't mean he gets to participate in it.
As a first-year freshman, Barkley is shielded from the media per coach James Franklin's policy. What you see is strictly what you get. No one asks him to explain the largely unexplainable (“How did you do that?”) or reveal any interesting personal nuggets. All in due time.
By all accounts, Barkley is a humble, generous young man who as a high school sprinter last spring gave his first-ever gold medal in the 100-meters to a female hurdler who appeared to win her event but then lost it after a timer malfunctioned. Reportedly, he thanks kids for asking for his autograph.
Still, Barkley, listed at 5-foot-11, 220-pounds, has provided plenty of material this season, both statistically (a Penn State freshman-record 1,007 rushing yards in just 9 1/2 games; 6.1 yards per carry) and visually (speed, power, patience, hurdling would-be tacklers).
Others have supplied the words. Quarterback Christian Hackenberg said he has respected Barkley “since the first day he got on campus.” Earlier in the season, Franklin said of Barkley, “He doesn't run like a freshman. He's making people miss, but he's also breaking tackles. You usually don't get that combination in a freshman. We're going to need to develop him.”
Asked which runner gave him the most trouble, Michigan State linebacker Darien Harris told reporters last week, “The toughest guy I've ever had to tackle, in terms of running hard, Saquon Barkley from Penn State was extremely hard to bring down.”
Franklin's addendum regarding Barkley's development bespeaks the obvious. He is 18 until February. With one game remaining, Saturday's TaxSlayer Bowl against Georgia, he still lacks a full season's experience.
“I think Saquon is just scratching the surface, to be honest with you,” Franklin said. “He's still figuring things out. He's still growing. I mean, think about him after a whole off-season of strength and conditioning and speed work, of continuing to study defenses and understand coverages and fronts.
“He's just at the very beginning of it,” Franklin said. “Although he's physically developed, he's just going to get bigger and stronger and faster and more explosive and more confident. And the more confident you get mentally, the faster you're able to play.”
Barkley, who made several Freshman All-America teams and was named Big Ten Network's Freshman of the Year, began the season backing up junior Akeel Lynch.
Barkley barely played in the opening 27-10 loss to Temple, but came off the bench to run for 115 yards against Buffalo and 195 against Rutgers.
He got hurt against San Diego State (Penn State does not disclose most injury information, but it appeared to involve the lower leg) and missed the next two games.
When Barkley returned, he rushed for 194 yards against then-No. 1 Ohio State and displaced Lynch as the starter.
He later would gain 120 yards against Northwestern, currently ranked 12th, and 103 yards against Michigan State, a College Football Playoff semifinalist.
As with most young backs, Barkley's blocking still needs attention. But he made strides as a receiver; 14 of his 15 receptions came in the last four games.
“You don't rush for 1,000 yards just on straight talent,” said Hackenberg, who is expected to leave for the NFL and yield to Barkley as the focal point on offense. “He put in a lot of work. ... He's earned everyone's respect in the locker room at a young age, and that's special.”