Penn State Football’s Next Big Star? Saquon Barkley May Have What It Takes
Quarterbacks and linebackers and running backs and head coaches.
These have been the stars of Penn State football.
The ones with gravitational pull, the individuals who are larger than life. They are the ones who not only excite the fans and media, but the players in the locker room as well.
The biggest have gone by one name – JoePa. OB. LaVar. Ki-Jana. Poz. Cappy. Franco. Christian.
Sometimes, it’s two who are known as one, like Blackledgeandwarner. Or Saltandpepper. Other times, it’s two names of the same one: Mikereid, Michaelmauti, Blairthomas, Seanlee, Charliepittman.
Initials work: LJ, DJ, OJ. So does MRob. (Still.)
For many years, they were tough, solid names that personified Penn State and Pennsylvania and the Land Grant ideal all in one: Ham, Onkotz, Zapiec, Buttle, Conlan. Linebackers all.
A century ago, it was Shorty, Light Horse, Charley Way, Mother and Red – although the last two were neither back nor ’backer.
And for decades, Joe was the ultimate star and the face and voice of the program. His successor, Bill O’Brien, was the chin and stiff upper lip of Penn State football, when it was needed most. Mauti and Matt McGloin fit in perfectly with O’Brien, tough and in your face and I’ll show you NCAA and everyone else. Stars made of grit.
Penn State’s recent star has been Hackenberg, but the positive fuss and buzz he carries on campus has been sacked to a degree by what has happened on the field and been written all over the blogosphere. No doubt, he’s a star and a team leader – the only underclassman and the only quarterback to be named a Penn State team captain for two seasons. That's extraordinary. But the excitement he caused with Robinson in 2013, and in game-ending performances against UCF and Rutgers and OSU and BC in 2014, has been tempered by 54 sacks and seven losses in 54 weeks.
James Franklin, his head coach, is a true star in the world in the world of recruiting, pulling in almost six dozen recruits in seven dozen weeks. But, at 8-7, he’s not yet ”the” broad-based Penn State star with massive gravitational pull or quasar-bright illumination.
Which brings us to Saquon Barkley.
And, actually, it didn’t take us – or him -- long to get here. He’s had all of 14 days of classes at University Park and far fewer football Saturdays. But on the field, as the saying goes, class always tells. And in Barkley’s case, it tells early.
A true freshman from Whitehall High School in the Lehigh Valley, Barkley impressed almost immediately in summer drills, both inside the program and out:
Dave Revsine of the Big Ten Network Tweeted after visiting practice: “Saquon Barkley really stood out in practice yesterday - big play waiting to happen. Could be one of the league's impact freshmen.”
Safety and captain Jordan Lucas had this to say late in preseason camp: “I like the young guy. I like Saquon Barkley a lot. I love his body. He has that big, strong back build. You have to love that.”
In Week One against Temple, Barkley carried the football just once, for a single yard on the first play of Penn State’s second drive in the third quarter. It was an inauspicious beginning.
On Saturday against Buffalo in Beaver Stadium, Barkley emerged again in the third quarter. Prior to his appearance, other than a 22-yard scoring reverse by freshman receiver Brandon Polk, the Nittany Lion running game was going nowhere slow. Akeel Lynch had carried the ball 16 times for 34 net yards in the first half, averaging just 2.4 yards per carry.
Things didn’t look too bright, and not just because the sun wasn’t out. The rains were heavy, offensive tackle Andrew Nelson was out with an injury and Paris Palmer – who struggled against Temple – was back in, filling in for Nelson. The turf was soggy and the score was way too close for comfort. Penn State was up 10-0 at the half.
Enter Barkley. On the opening drive of the second half, he carried the ball three straight times – for 3 yards, then 5 yards and then 1 yard. Penn State punted, but the buzz in Beaver Stadium was real: Saquon Barkley was in the game. He added a 5-yard carry later in the quarter, which ended with Penn State perilously ahead, 13-7.
Enter Barkley. On Penn State’s first play of the fourth quarter, he ran for 33 yards. The very next play, he jumped over a Buffalo defender and stretched past another on his way to 17 more yards. The Penn State sidelines, the offense and the stadium came alive.
Saquon Barkley had arrived.
The Nittany Lions scored on the very next play, a 5-yard pass from Hackenberg to DaeSean Hamilton, and on a day when the sun never shined a star was born.
Barkley finished with 115 yards rushing on only 12 carries – a 9.6-yard average. More remarkable is what he did in the fourth quarter alone, when he carried the ball just 8 times yet ran for 101 yards.
It’s not just about the numbers, though Evan Royster ran for 3,932 yards on 682 carries at Penn State and is the school’s all-time leading rusher. Tony Hunt had 15 100-yard games. Shelly Hammonds holds the single-game rushing record for a Penn State freshman, with 208 at Boston College in 1990.
Barkley will be more exciting. For one play on Saturday, he already was. And like a true star, Barkley makes everyone around him better.
Hackenberg: “He’s just a great player and I’ve said that since the first day he stepped on campus, both on-and-off the field. I think he’s one of those kids that is what Penn State is all about. He works extremely hard, cares a lot, he has a lot of that care factor which is awesome and hard to see sometimes in younger players. He’s special…”
Franklin: “When you have a guy making plays like that, who is able to make something happen, guys block better. It has that type of impact on everybody.”
And the kid is personable and charismatic and -- it seems on tape -- genuine and genuinely humble.
Tony Mancuso of Penn State’s athletics communications team takes advantage of unfettered access to the football program to do some really insightful work, which is posted on Penn State athletics’ website, GoPSUSports.com. On Saturday, Mancuso did an 80-second interview with Barkley that was fresh – it was at his locker, and was the only Q&A he did -- and refreshing. Watch the interview here, beginning at the 2:47 mark.
In it, Barkley said, “It was great. I was really excited. I had a great time – my first time ever in Beaver Stadium. I dreamed about this ever since I committed here in February two years ago. It was awesome. It was everything I expected… There was a lot of rain and there were still a lot of people here. That just shows how supportive and great our fan base is…
“(The offensive line) was great. We came into the game knowing that it might be a little rainy and we said we were going to run the ball, we’re going to ground pound, we’re going to punch them in the face and keep punching them in the face.
“Akeel started it off and I got in the game in the second half and we were punching and grinding and the offensive line was setting up holes for us. Everyone sees what the running backs do – make the big plays – but you cannot do anything without the front guys. They did a good job. Without them, we would not be anywhere close to 200 yards.”
And with that, Barkley passed Postgame Interview 101 with flying colors.
Whether the Nittany Nation calls him Saquon or Barkley or, more likely, Saquonbarkley, the freshman running back has shown that he’s different. He not only gains yards, he makes the kind of moments with the kind of anticipation and exciting pay-off I remember Curt Warner making. And that he will make his name on the football field and the field only, without any sanction overtones or any undue underdog encumbrances, would make him an old school star as well.
After the game, Nittany Lion defensive tackle Austin Johnson was asked about Barkley’s leap and what it was like being on the Penn State sidelines when it happened.
“It was like when there’s a dunk in basketball,” said Johnson with a big grin.
The big guy then leaned forward, pushed out his chest and spread his arms wide. He was mimicking keeping teammates on the sidelines from rushing the field.
Yeah, exactly like that.