Penn State running back Miles Sanders mentally stronger after humbling freshman season

Centre Daily Times (TNS)
  • Miles Sanders came into college as the top-rated running back recruit in the nation.
  • He spent his freshman season at Penn State in 2016 as a backup to standout Saquon Barkley.
  • Last season, he set a school record with 33 kickoff returns for 688 yards.

UNIVERSITY PARK — You might think heading into college as the No. 1 running back recruit in the country, only to be relegated to a second-string role as a freshman, would have been the toughest part of Miles Sanders’ transition.

That assumption would be incorrect.

Penn State running back Miles Sanders (24) dashes away from the Rutgers defense during a game last season.

What was tougher? Fielding kickoffs in front of 107,000 people and national television audiences.

“They never kicked it to me in high school,” he said during the team’s media day on Saturday, Aug. 5. “That was probably the biggest adjustment.”

In both cases, the Penn State sophomore back figured out how to make it work.

When the Nittany Lions’ football season kicks off Saturday, Sept. 2 against Akron at Beaver Stadium, Sanders will have the same roles, but he is a different — and improved — player and person from the experience.

“He’s learned a lot from being able to take a step back out of the limelight and take a look at some of his flaws and some of the areas he needed growth in,” running backs coach Charles Huff said.

Backing up Barkley: The biggest obstacle for Sanders, no matter how good his resume might have looked when he stepped onto campus last summer, was the guy in front of him — Saquon Barkley. It’s hard to beat out one of the nation’s best players and a potential top-five NFL draft pick.

Sanders could have sulked, but he chose to learn.

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“It was good for Miles when he came in,” Huff said. “Obviously (he was) a highly-touted recruit out of high school. (There was) a lot of hype about his ability, his potential, and it was good for him to come and be around a guy like Saquon who was also, now that he’s here, a highly valuable kid. I think he’s learned a lot from Saquon.”

Seeing plenty of time: The star out of Pittsburgh’s Woodland Hills appreciated what he did have instead of what he didn’t. He still got plenty of playing time as a freshman — one of just five true freshmen to play last year — setting a school record with 33 kickoff returns and recording 688 yards, the second-most in school history. He also got 25 carries for 184 yards, scoring his only touchdown on a 25-yard run against Maryland, and breaking off a 57-yard burst against Rutgers.

Those numbers were a far cry from the 1,523 rushing yards he had as a high school senior and the 4,573 yards for his career. Those stats, combined with his speed and now 5-foot-11, 209-pound frame, made him the nation’s No. 1 back according to a number of recruiting services, including Rivals, Scout and 247Sports.

“He’s a really, really, really talented back physically,” fellow back Andre Robinson said. “It was a little bit of an adjustment for him. He had to learn the offense and learn everything.”

He watched and learned: Sanders watched and learned, especially from Barkley. He saw what the junior did in the weight room, he saw how hard Barkley worked in drills, how hard he studied the playbook, how many questions he asked and especially how the game is so much more than physical ability.

“It’s not just about running the ball,” Sanders said. “You’ve got to really know your plays. You’ve got to block. That’s one of the other main things ... be mentally tough. That’s what it takes.”

The need for mental toughness came in handy when he was standing under kickoffs too. He was happy to be on the field and contributing, even if it took until about midseason, he said, before he felt comfortable back there.

Now, he is looking forward to being out there for kickoffs this year.

“I have a much better feeling about it,” he said. “I can’t wait, really.”

He'll be ready when his time comes: As for stepping into the offensive backfield, his time will come. Huff tells his position group there are no backups in the running back room. The starter is the guy on the field at that moment, and those who prepare like a backup will perform like a backup.

Huff liked the way Sanders accepted the challenge.

“You kind of expect to come out and rush for like a million yards,” Huff said. “He handled it the right way. I think that’s a big testament to Saquon. He kind of coached him that, ‘Hey, it ain’t going to be like running against (Pittsburgh) Central Catholic.’”