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Penn State Football: Sanders Talks Ball Security Following Barkley's Nearly Fumble-Free Career

by on August 21, 2018 8:17 PM

If you were going to make a list of the little things that have helped Penn State rise to the top of the Big Ten over the past two years, turnovers, or the lack thereof, would be somewhere near the top.

Just 10 interceptions, and three fumbles all season in 2017.

And sure, Trace McSorley's interceptions haven't always been timely, but they rarely are. He exists in a bizarre place of dueling truths, where he has thrown for 59 touchdowns, but some of his 18 picks are among the more season-altering moments.

Even so, in the grand scheme of things turnovers haven't been the reason Penn State failed to make the playoffs, it's not really why the Nittany Lions lost to Ohio State.

The stats are actually more impressive the other way around; Saquon Barkley touched the ball 793 times during his career and fumbled it on just four occasions. It's a dizzying stat that seems to defy the law of averages that allows for mistakes or a helmet popping the ball out through the fault of no one. Barkley failed to fumble the ball at a rate that seemed unnatural. Bad luck should have shown up at some point.

"I would hope that it's a part and a function of how we practice and how we emphasize it all the time," coach James Franklin said after practice on Tuesday evening. "I've been doing this for 23 years and I was never a part of a program anywhere that took a five minute segment in practice and worked on ball security every single day. We do it every single day. I kind of look at it as a credit of how we do it and how we emphasize it."

Whatever the reason, there is the other side of the coin, an almost certain inevitability that Penn State will regress to a more average fumble rate no matter who is carrying the ball. Prior to 2017 the Nittany Lions fumbled 11 or more times for four straight years. Over the past 10 seasons, Penn State has fumbled the ball away 10 or more times during six of those seasons. It's just part of football.

Enter Miles Sanders, who is undeniably talented, but has also empirically fumbled more than Barkley. On 102 touches, Sanders has coughed up the ball five times.

It is what it is, a lot of things play into a stat like that, but it's hard to ignore the fact that no matter how well Sanders goes about replacing Barkley, he's bound to be more human than his predecessor sometimes appeared to be.

So how do you get close to matching Barkley's near flawless turnover figure?

"Hold the ball with an eagle claw," Sanders said after practice. "Bring it in, tuck it across your chest so you don't have it exposed. High and tight. It's being confident and having awareness and being high and tight when you're going through the hole and knowing where you're at on the field."

And you better hold it tight, because defenders are watching, and corner John Reid is going to get a helmet on that ball.

"You can see it on film, how different guys hold the ball," corner John Reid said. "It's a habit, guys aren't changing game to game their ball security. Guys run how they're comfortable. So we can see guy's tendencies going into a game and that rarely changes."

Everyone enters the season with a clean slate, and Sanders fumbling more than Barkley isn't a fault, it's just a stat. Not fumbling is a stat that fills a negative space, hard to see happening because you aren't thinking about it.

But it goes to show that there are things that have gone into Penn State's success that aren't always obvious, and a few of them slowly coming back down to Earth can make a big difference.

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