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Penn State Football: Barkley, Sanders And Polk A Big Risk-Reward Return Unit

by on August 04, 2016 7:15 PM

Saquon Barkley returning kicks? James Franklin quietly floated the idea at Big Ten media days in Chicago and then again Thursday at Penn State's own media day event.

"We have the depth now that we really feel like we can use some of those players on special teams and I think Saquon is a part of that," Franklin said Thursday morning. "What you have to decide is does the starter give you significant -- is there a significant difference between maybe a starter, whether it's a receiver, whether it's a running back or whether it's a corner being your punt return, kick return, and is his value so great on special teams over the next guy that it's worth using him?"

"And then also, how do you feel about the next running back and the following running back or the next corner and so on and so forth? Or do you have another guy on your roster that brings similar value in the return game that it makes sense not to use one of those guys?"

On paper the advantages seem obvious, Penn State gets the ball in the hands of its best player who is largely effective in open space. For a special teams unit that averaged 21.9 yards a kick return and 7.1 per punt return in 2015-16 there seems to be plenty of room for improvement. For comparison Tennessee led the nation in kick return average last season at 33.41 yards, Texas A&M with 19.68 per punt return.

Who Penn State ultimately turns to for that job is still very much up in the air, but Franklin certainly isn't shying away from putting his best offensive weapon on the field for one of the games most violent plays.

This, as nearly everyone noted on Thursday, opens up the question if the risk is worth it. If it's worth putting the health of one of the nation's top running backs on the line for a kick return when plenty of other players are capable of the job. Return man Koa Farmer returns to the fold this season, and while Penn State is looking to improve, Farmer was serviceable and often not far from the occasional big return.

"I think like Coach said, it's risk-reward," special teams and running backs coach Charles Huff said. "You've got to be mindful of the fact that, yeah, there is another opportunity. There is another rep. But whenever you can help the team win by putting the ball in the hands of a play maker, I think you've got to look at that option. That's something that we'll look at moving forward in camp and throughout the season. That also depends on how some of the other guys, how their camp goes.

"As running back coach, to me, it's about winning. So whether it's winning with the running back, whoever he may be, getting 300 yards rushing or whether it's winning, having the kick returner return two kicks for touchdowns, to me it's about winning. However that is, that's fine with me."

As Franklin later noted the precedent is there, Stanford's Christian McCaffrey had over 2,000 yards rushing and over 1,000 yards in the return game. One of the nation's premier athletes, McCaffrey set the bar for what a lethal running back can do given the chance to make plays in the open field from the outset.

"All options are open. All these things have been discussed ahead of time," Franklin added. "And like anything, there's strength and weaknesses and risk and reward and you've got to balance all those things. I think you look at the Stanford model, what they've done, they've gotten a lot of value. They've gotten a lot of value and those are things you've got to decide."

Ask Barkley and his answer is simple. He isn't worried about injuries, and if it helps the team win then he's interested in doing it.

And by the time Penn State hit the field on Thursday evening for the first practice of the season, Barkley, freshman running back Miles Sanders and speedster receiver Brandon Polk were all working with Franklin on return techniques.

So the question now seems to be how long will it last, not if it will happen.


Ben Jones covers Penn State football and basketball for He's on Twitter as @Ben_Jones88.
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