STATE COLLEGE — Saquon Barkley stood in the Beaver Stadium tunnel last September, his nerves twisting as he watched the ribbons of blue and white stripe the bleachers above him. He arrived at Penn State determined to play as a freshman, and that game would be among his most memorable.
Barkley rushed for a season-high 195 yards and two touchdowns in Penn State's 28-3 victory over Rutgers, but what he remembers most vividly are the colors of the night.
"I was amazed," he said. "Running out of that tunnel, it felt like a movie. I flashed back to being a recruit, sitting in the stands during the 'Whiteout,' just hoping I could play in big games like that."
That night also demonstrated how far Barkley had progressed since his freshman year at Whitehall High School. Then, he was a 5-8, 160-pound running back who wondered whether football was for him. In the weight room, Barkley wouldn't complete a squat because he feared hurting his knees. On the field, he didn't think he belonged with the varsity team.
In fact, Barkley considered giving up the game but was pressed to play one more season by his father, Alibay. As success came, his confidence grew. Now, after an introductory season at Penn State in which he achieved his primary goal of playing as a freshman, Barkley said he wants to become a complete running back.
He also looks back on that moment before his freshman season at Whitehall as the turning point of his career.
"I had doubts about playing football," Barkley said. "I thought, 'Maybe this sport's not for me, maybe I should try something else.' Good thing my father made me stick with it."
A growing confidence: Barkley wore a District 11 track & field T-shirt last week to his first media interview since arriving at Penn State. He wasn't sure which event he had won at last May's championship meet – "Long jump, I think?" – but did remember placing second to Nazareth's Julian Liaci (by .11 seconds) in the 100-meter final.
Those competitive moments have sustained Barkley since he made Whitehall's varsity roster. Prior to his freshman season, though, Barkley was uneasy about football, figuring he might be better suited for another sport.
But prodded by his family to continue, Barkley began silencing his anxiety. He gained 25 pounds in the weight room, lowered his 40-yard dash time to 4.4 seconds and blossomed into one of the top backs in Pennsylvania. With each big carry he made for the Zephyrs, Barkley said his confidence "skyrocketed."
He arrived at Penn State last May determined to play as a freshman — "I didn't want to let down the people who supported me from home," he said — and made the travel squad for Penn State's opener against Temple.
From there, Barkley accelerated his introduction, rushing for 115 yards in the home-opener against Buffalo before his breakthrough appearance against Rutgers. He set Penn State's single-season freshman rushing record (1,076 yards) and was the team's only offensive player named to the all-Big Ten's first or second team.
Barkley did so despite missing more than two games with a sprained ankle, the first injury of his career that caused him to miss playing time.
The highlight reel included plays at which even teammates marveled. He leaped over two Buffalo defenders for a touchdown, fought through San Diego State's defense for a score on a screen pass and ran for 194 yards at Ohio State.
Through each step at Penn State, beginning with the three-on-three practice drill known as the "Lions Den," Barkley gained more confidence. Barkley said he was undefeated in his Lions Den appearances last year. He's looking forward to defending his title this year.
"As I got older, got stronger and became faster, I think that's how my confidence grew," he said. "It's a credit to my coaches in high school for making me believe in myself. And a huge credit to my family, especially my father, for giving me the mentality that I can do whatever I want, as long as I put my mind to it."
'Great kid, great attitude, great athlete:' When he began preseason drills at Penn State last August, Barkley didn't want to be known as a player who ducked competition. He made every drill a duel.
"I'm not trying to be cocky," he said, "but yes, I won most of them."
As his role with the team expanded, Barkley sought to maintain his humility. Following one 80-yard gain in practice, he apologized to position coach Charles Huff for not running with his shoulders squared.
During position meetings, Barkley asked questions to the point of exhaustion. Former running back Nick Scott, who was part of those meetings, said Barkley asked and asked until he had the concept cold.
"It got to the point where I'm looking at him like, 'Bro, can we get out of here?'" said Scott, who since has shifted to defensive back. "Great kid, great attitude, great athlete."
In the weight room, Barkley's productivity has become famous. Dwight Galt, the team's director of performance enhancement, called Barkley "a once every 10 years guy."
During winter conditioning, Barkley somehow lost five pounds of body fat, and added 12 pounds of muscle, on his 220-pound frame. He tied Penn State's power-clean record at 390 pounds. He ran the 40 in 4.38 seconds, benched 390 pounds and squatted 495 pounds seven times.
Penn State coach James Franklin called those numbers comparable to the nation's top running backs, college or pro. Barkley said he approached offseason drills as though he were on the field.
In the squat, Barkley competed against defensive tackle Kevin Givens. In the power-clean, he squared off against tight end Mike Gesicki. In the shuttle run, he dueled with fellow running back Mark Allen, whom Barkley called one of the quickest players he has met.
"You'd never know Saquon Barkley was the type of player he is from the way he carries himself," Franklin said. "I hear from our players all the time, even other freshmen and some of the seniors, that they're just so impressed by how he carries himself and how he presents himself and how he has handled all the attention he's received in a short period of time."
The next step: Franklin often texts players inspirational quotes from successful players regarding preparation. Peyton Manning has been one of Franklin's recent favorites.
The coach also sent Barkley some quotes regarding former Ohio State back Ezekiel Elliott, whom Barkley played against (with some awe) at Ohio Stadium last fall. Barkley considered Elliott probably the best running back in college football last year. That's what he aspires to be.
To get there, Barkley is pushing himself to become what he calls a "complete back." He believes that he fits offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead's new offense because it rewards variety in running backs.
"This offense fits me because I believe I'm not a one-dimensional back," Barkley said. "There are power backs, speed backs and shifty backs who do a couple of things. I feel like, personally, I'm able to take bits and pieces of all those running styles in my game. There are some things I need to work on, but I'm working on being an every-down back."
Franklin said that, for Barkley, the next step centers on his knowledge of the game. Barkley admitted that he felt uncomfortable last year in pass protection, with which freshman backs often struggle.
During spring drills, he is pushing himself to identify defensive schemes based on the location of the safeties, the linebacker rotations and where defensive linemen place their hands.
Franklin said that he's pushing Barkley to be not just a student of the game but a master of it.
"Now, I think he's hungry for more," Franklin said. "He hasn't really achieved a whole lot. He achieved a good amount for a freshman, but he still has a lot of things to achieve in his career, in terms of wins and losses and Big Ten championships and helping his team be as successful as it possibly can be. He had a very good freshman year, but that doesn't mean he's had a great Penn State career yet."