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Penn State Football: Status of Sanders, Running Backs? It's Complicated

by on March 25, 2018 9:00 PM

Saquon Barkley is gone.

Next man up? Miles Sanders.

Miles Sanders, running back-in-waiting.

Miles Sanders, Mr. PA Football 2015, the No. 1 running back in the nation, according to Rivals, Scout and 247Sports, with 4,573 rushing yards and 59 TDs while at Woodland Hills High School.

Right. Right?

It's kind of complicated.

The tsunami that was Barkley in 2017, and who continues to be in 2018, has left some muddied waters.

At least that seems to be the case, according to pronouncements this week by the father-in-waiting and his former head coach, James Franklin.

Barkley, who is taking his 3,843 yards and 43 TDs rushing to the NFL, weighed in on Saturday about the guys with whom he once shared the Lash running backs room.

“Not only am I excited about Miles, because Miles obviously is an exceptional talent, but the other running backs (too),” Barkley told Audrey Snyder of Land of 10. “It’s just everyone is expecting Miles to take over and while talent-wise, which if you watch football you can see why a lot of people think that and make that statement, but it’s up for grabs. It’s going to make them all better.”

Barkley had the lion's share of the carries — 217 — among Penn State's running backs in 2017. Among running backs, Sanders was next with 31, followed by nine for Andre Robinson (who left the team last December), nine for Mark Allen and one for walk-on Nick Eury. The fulcrum of the RPO, quarterback Trace McSorley, had 144 carries, while utility man Tommy Stevens had 27.

Barkley also assumed the No. 1 kick returner's duties in 2017, following Sanders' record-breaking season at the spot in 2016. As a freshman in 2016, Sanders returned a Penn State-record 33 kickoffs for 688 yards, second-best in school history, and a 20.8-yard average. (He also had three fumbles, a freshman phase he seemed to conquer as a sophomore.) Last season, Barkley moved to the No. 1 KR spot, returning 15 for 28.4 yards and two TDs, while Sanders had five kickoff returns for a 15.2-yard average.

Both as a ball-carrier and kick returner, Barkley was a transformational, generational player. Still, he could be stopped: Barkley had seven rushing games of 77 or fewer yards in 2017.


Barkley's situation last season left some backups with their hair up, according to no less than an authority than head coach James Franklin.

"I wanted to give our team the best chance to win and I wanted to give Saquon the best chance to win the Heisman, so I wasn't taking him off the field..." Franklin told ESPN veteran reporter Adam Rittenberg in a private interview in the coach's office early last Monday, five hours before his official spring-opening press conference in Beaver Stadium.

"That caused a lot of issues with our running backs," Franklin told Rittenberg. "That was a struggle for those guys. At the end of the day, everybody kind of understood it, but it's still hard to deal with. Now we're in a situation where those guys are really hungry to show what they could do."

Barkley finished fourth in the 2017 Heisman voting, with 304 points, trailing winner Baker Mayfield of Oklahoma (2,350 points), Stanford's Bryce Love (1,300) and Louisville's Lamar Jackson (703).

In some ways, as he noted, Franklin did what he could to get Barkley the Heisman. In 2017, a good bit of Penn State's mop-up time belonged to Barkley. And there was a lot of mop-up time.

Penn State led for all of 37 minutes and 42 seconds of the 2017 season, or 95.2% of the time, according to "Coaches By the Numbers" and the Nittany Lions played with a 10-point lead or more a nation-leading 60% of the time (Alabama, was No. 2, at 55.2%).

Seven times in 2017 Penn State entered the fourth quarter with a lead of 22 or more points. According to, when Penn State was up by 22 or more points, Barkley had 42 carries for 275 yards, and six TDs, with an additional six receptions. Overall, 13 of his 23 touchdowns last season came when Penn State was already ahead by at least 15 points. Barkley's 16-yard TD pass to DaeSean Hamilton against Indiana last year came with 4:13 left in the game and Penn State up 38-14. Meanwhile, with PSU up by 22 points or more, Sanders had 16 rushes for 118 yards and a TD, and four catches.


Sanders has done a lot of waiting.

In 2016 as a freshman, he had 60 touches, with the 33 kick returns, 25 rushes for 184 yards and a spectacular 7.4-yards per carry average, as well as two receptions for 24 yards.

In 2017 as a sophomore, he had 42 touches, with the five kick returns, 31 rushes for 191 yards (a 6.2-yard average), with bursts of 29 and 31 yards, and five receptions for 30 yards.

Through it all, Sanders — the former Mr. PA Football — has taken it well in his own public pronouncements. Like when he talked with the media at the pre-bowl media day last December in Beaver Stadium.

"I didn't look at it as tough," Sanders said of waiting his turn behind Barkley. "I just look at it as a learning experience and I took advantage of it instead of being mad about it or wishing I could play more. I just tried to take advantage of it and get better all the time — just waiting for my time to come."

So, a reporter asked, it wasn't hard at all?

"Nope," Sanders said.

"I think I am faster, stronger, and more explosive," said the 5-11 Sanders, who came into Penn State at 195 pounds and 25 months later is listed in this spring's media guide at 211. "Learning the offense inside and out and the defense, too, has been huge for me."




It will, Franklin said on Monday in his second presser since the Fiesta Bowl, take a village to replace Barkley.

"Let's be honest, guys, to think we are going to be able to replace Saquon Barkley with a running back, that's not what we need to do," said Franklin.

'We need to replace Saquon Barkley with the running backs that we have. And when I talk about 'replace Saquon,' I talk about his production — but replace it with the group of running backs that we have (and) also with the growth of the offensive line and the development of our tight ends, and still be a team that's difficult to stop because of the firepower that we have at wide receiver and the mobility we have at the quarterback position."

That group of running backs includes senior Mark Allen, a 5-foot-6, 187-pounder who in three seasons has rushed 65 times for 251 yards, for a 4.2-yard average and two TDs. He's also had eight receptions for 68 yards and two TDs. Fifth-year senior Johnathan Thomas (5-11, 215), who was at linebacker his first two seasons, has also drawn praise from Barkley and Franklin.

Then there's redshirt freshman Journey Brown (5-11, 194), who got rave reviews for his work on the Penn State scout team in 2017. Brown set the state high school rushing record with 722 yards and 10 TDs against DuBois in 2015, and finished his career with over 7,000 yards and 106 touchdowns. He was the PIAA AAA 100-meter champ in 2016 with a 10.73, and has recorded a 6.87 for the 60 meters.

Sanders will also see competition from incoming freshman Ricky Slade (5-9, 185), the No. 1 high school player in Virginia, who ran for 5,499 career yards, including 1,978 yards and 30 TDs a senior.

So, maybe Sanders isn't a shoe-in as the Say-Say Apparent.


At this juncture, perhaps it's instructive to look back to the afternoon of Feb. 3, 2016, the national letter of intent signing day when Sanders became a Nittany Lion.

Here's how Franklin assessed the situation then (and now?) at running back:

"If you look around college football right now and you look in the NFL, you need multiple running backs," Franklin after signing his third recruiting class at Penn State. "You're going to need three running backs that you can depend on.

"You look at the programs like Penn State, they're going to go out and sign significant players at the same position every single year. And you have to embrace competition. You have to embrace the ability to come in and compete. I think in a lot of ways the success that Saquon had this year (2015, when Barkley ran for 1,076 yards as a freshman) was actually a positive, because Miles could see himself having success like that and knowing that we were going to need multiple backs that are elite to help us go where we want to go.

"It's not just Saquon, you can look at the other backs we have in our program right now. It's going to be really good competition there. And I know they're excited for it as well. All the rankings are great, and Miles has earned those, but he's going to come to Penn State and have to earn them again."

In other words, to be frosty about it: Sanders has miles to go before he sleeps.

Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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