WOGENRICH: How the 'Saquon Barkley effect' propelled Penn State's recruiting in 2018

(Allentown) Morning Call (TNS)
  • Saquon Barkley has starred at running back both at Penn State and in the NFL.
  • PSU head coach James Franklin says Barkley's success has helped the Lions recruit other top backs.
  • The Lions' latest recruiting class features two backs considered among the best in the nation.

After declaring Saquon Barkley the NFL’s Rookie of the Year, Penn State coach James Franklin credited the running back for helping to bring a recruiting surge to State College.

Former Penn State running back Saquon Barkley is seen here celebrating after a touchdown run with the New York Giants. According to PSU head coach James Franklin, Barkley's success has had a positive influence on the Nittany Lions' ability to recruit top-flight running backs. AP FILE PHOTO

Barkley’s success has made Penn State a destination for high-end running backs.

The Lions signed 18 players to their recruiting class Wednesday, the first day of the early signing period, with two considered among the nation’s best backs. Devyn Ford, a five-star prospect from Virginia, and Noah Cain, a four-star recruit from Florida’s IMG Academy, continued a string of backfield recruiting success that began with a phone call to Barkley in 2014.

The “Saquon Barkley effect” is real, Franklin said, and played a major role in helping shape this offensive class.

“When we played in the Rose Bowl, and he’s got that run where he made 17 people miss, and it’s a signature run, I do think that has an impact,” Franklin said, “Players try to envision themselves doing something similar. Whenever you have exciting players like that, it can make a huge impact.”

Cain, a 5-11, 215-pound back, was the newcomer to Penn State’s class, announcing his decision Wednesday on ESPN2. Cain, who transferred to IMG Academy last year from Denton, Texas, chose Penn State over Texas, Auburn and Georgia.

Anxious moment: For Franklin, that recruiting process brought a last-minute anxious moment. Cain, who quietly had committed to Penn State several weeks ago, and his family called Franklin after midnight Tuesday with some questions. “And the discussion is coming off like they have not made their decision yet,” Franklin said.

After a “heated discussion,” as Franklin described it, and a late sales pitch, Cain stuck with his commitment. During his announcement, Cain said that Franklin and running backs coach Ja’Juan Seider were “nothing but transparent and consistent with me throughout this whole thing.”

“I saw the way they use the running back,” Cain said of Penn State. “The running back is a focal point, always involved in every play. They’re building something up there, and I plan on winning a national championship with those boys.”

Barkley led the way: Barkley almost said the same thing in 2014 when he decommitted from Rutgers for Penn State. From there, he became a two-time Big Ten offensive player of the year and the No. 2 pick in the NFL draft.

Since Barkley committed, Penn State has loaded its roster with coveted backs. In 2016, Miles Sanders was the nation’s top-ranked running back, according to Sanders rushed for 1,223 yards and nine touchdowns this season.

Last year, Ricky Slade was Rivals’ No. 2 all-purpose back. He became Penn State’s No. 2 as a true freshman, scoring six touchdowns and averaging 5.6 yards per carry.

In this class, Ford is Rivals’ No. 2 running back, while Cain is ranked fifth. Ford (5-11, 188 pounds) scored more than 100 touchdowns in high school and will play in next month’s Under-Armour All-American Game in Orlando.

Avoiding Barkley comparisons: Franklin called both backs “really mature” but wouldn’t compare them to Barkley. In fact, he noted proudly that Penn State rushed for more yards in this regular season (2,503) than it did in 2017 (2,009).

“One of the questions I get is, ‘Are you out there looking for the next Saquon Barkley?’ No,” Franklin said. “I think that's a huge mistake people make. No different in hiring: You lose a coach, you go try and hire somebody just like the other guy? No, you don't do that. That's not how it works.”

Signing Day highlights: Five things we learned on Signing Day

►Penn State’s class includes 17 players ranked as four-star prospects or higher. Among top-10 classes, according to 247Sports, only Alabama (25) and Georgia (19) have more.

►Franklin said he developed a case of pneumonia during his recent recruiting travel. According to Penn State, Franklin flew more than 15,000 miles and visited 23 states the past three weeks, trying to broaden the program’s recruiting reach.

“It looks good on paper, and I think it will end up looking good on the field, as well,” Franklin said. “I don't know if I necessarily felt that way when we were flying all over the country to multiple states per day.”

►Penn State recruited two quarterbacks: Michael Johnson Jr. of Oregon and Taquan Roberson of New Jersey. Franklin initially pursued that strategy because he wasn’t sure whether current quarterback Tommy Stevens would transfer.

Johnson’s father Michael played quarterback at Arizona State and Akron and now coaches receivers at Oregon. He has been on NFL staffs in San Diego, Atlanta, Baltimore and San Francisco.

►Four of Penn State’s recruits were the top-ranked prospects in their states, according to 247Sports: Johnson Jr., defensive ends Adisa Isaac (New York) and Saleem Wormley (Delaware) and linebacker Brandon Smith (Virginia).

In addition, offensive tackle Anthony Whigan (Lackawanna College) was the top-ranked junior-college prospect in Pennsylvania.

►Penn State has some “wiggle room” to add a few more players, Franklin said. They likely would sign during the second signing period in February.