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WOGENRICH: PSU's Barkley 'a beast' and 'a superstar'

MARK WOGENRICH
(Allentown) Morning Call (TNS)
  • Saquon Barkley rushed for 1,076 yards last season as a freshman.
  • Barkley weighs 223 pounds and runs a 4.38 40-yard dash.
  • Barkley is a graduate of Whitehall High School.

Penn State's Saquon Barkley stepped off his line for a moment to encourage a fellow running back who was running laps after fumbling.

"High and tight," Barkley said of the team's ball-security measure before returning to his drill.

Penn State running back Saquon Barkley is coming off a 1,000-yard season as a freshman.

A year ago, then a freshman behind four more-experienced backs, Barkley entered his first Penn State practice gingerly. On Thursday he was the veteran, a 1,000-yard rusher and, according to his new offensive coordinator, a pathfinder for the offense.

"I think the thing we've seen from Saquon in the spring and heading into camp is a maturity and an ability to handle the leadership role," Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead said. "That is incumbent upon guys who are as good as him."

Barkley, the Whitehall High graduate, begins his sophomore season at Penn State, Moorhead said, as a budding "superstar." He's a preseason nominee for a handful of national awards, including the Maxwell as the nation's top player.

And his head coach isn't shy about assessing where Barkley fits on the national scene. James Franklin said there's a strong argument that Barkley is "one of the top backs in the country."

Franklin pointed to Barkley's range of skills and traits, from his size (5-11, 223 pounds) to his speed (Barkley ran a 4.38 40-yard dash this spring) to his power to his mentality.

"The good Lord doesn't give you everything," Franklin said. "For whatever reason, he's been given more than most."

Becoming a leader: With that, Barkley said, comes responsibility. Though a sophomore, Barkley has tried to inch forward as one of the team's vocal captains — "I like to talk," he said — and pacesetters. It's a position he wants to earn.

"I don't want to be a leader because of what I bring to the game or my talent or because I'm able to jump over someone or make a guy miss," Barkley said. "I want to be a leader because guys actually respect me.

"I know it's hard for a guy like [fifth-year senior] Nyeem [Wartman-White] to see me as a fellow leader. He's 23, and I'm 19. So I just try to work my butt off every single day and never complain. Hopefully people will take note."

Which they have.

Respect from foes: Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio called Barkley among the best backs he saw last season. Barkley ran 17 times for 103 yards against the Spartans, 70 more than Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott (12 carries, 33 yards) had against the Spartans the week before.

"He surpassed our scouting report in our game, because he ran right through some tackles, which has not been the case with many backs," Dantonio said.

Raekwon McMillan, an Ohio State linebacker, said he still remembers the stiff-arm Barkley delivered in their meeting, in which Barkley ran for 194 yards. Chris Ash, the former Ohio State defensive coordinator now coaching at Rutgers, said he prepared for Barkley last year by trying to eliminate the back's open-field space.

Ash said Barkley in space made him nervous, so the Buckeyes devised a defense that "made sure we could handle his athletic ability." Asked how that went, Ash smiled.

"Not real well," Ash said. "We made the plays we needed to, to win the game and put up a lot of points, but he had a good night."

Then there's Rutgers defensive lineman Julian Pinnix-Odrick, who chased Barkley on his breakthrough night (195 yards, two touchdowns). Pinnix-Odrick said that the Rutgers defenders couldn't help but talk about Barkley after the game.

"He's nice, he's nice," Pinnix-Odrick said. "What I mean is, he's a beast."

Moorhead raves about his ability: Moorhead has raved about Barkley as well since arriving at Penn State. The former Fordham head coach, who has nurtured successful running backs at several coaching stops, said Barkley has "small-back skills in a big-back body," which will deployed in multiple ways.

At Fordham, Moorhead's backs averaged between 250-300 carries, which would present a significant workload increase for Barkley — particularly in a no-huddle environment. Moorhead said he's mindful of the potential wear and tear and also wants to work in backs Mark Allen, Andre Robinson and potentially freshman Miles Sanders into the rotation.

Still, Moorhead can't contain his excitement about Barkley's sophomore potential.

"I think you see a guy who has all the tools necessary to be a superstar," he said. "… He's a great fit for what we're going to do offensively and has all the tools to be a special, special player."

THE BIG TEN'S TOP BACKS

Penn State's Saquon Barkley is among three returning Big Ten running backs who gained 1,000 yards last season. Here are the top 10.

PLAYER, SCHOOL, YARDS RUSHING, YPG AVERAGE

1. Justin Jackson, Northwestern, 1,418, 109.1

2. Saquon Barkley, Penn State, 1,076, 97.8

3. Devine Redding, Indiana, 1,012, 77.8

4. Markell Jones, Purdue, 875, 72.9

5. Dare Ogunbowale, Wisconsin, 819, 63

6. Terrell Newby, Nebraska, 765, 58.8

7, Robert Martin, Rutgers, 763, 63.6

8, De'Veon Smith, Michigan, 753, 62.8

9. Ke'Shawn Vaughn, Illinois, 723, 65.7

10. Shannon Brooks, Minnesota, 709, 59.1