Dreaming up new and creative ways to utilize his running backs does not faze Charles Huff.
The Nittany Lions’ special teams coordinator and assistant coach in charge of running backs, those actually are likely on the easier side of his scale of responsibilities.
Leading the way, junior Saquon Barkley is a legitimate Heisman Trophy hopeful in advance of the 2017 season. Behind him, three more backs exist in Miles Sanders, Andre Robinson and Mark Allen, each of whom rushed for more than 100 yards last season, and have plenty of heightened expectations to live up to themselves this season.
Rather, the job Huff calls “the toughest” as the position coach is managing a stable of running backs likely all deserving of playing time. With just one ball and an elite, dynamic star earning an opportunity to excel, maintaining perspective becomes paramount.
“It is hard. It's hard for kids, it's hard for adults. You think because you do a lot of work or you work hard or you do everything right for a week that you should have success,” said Huff. “But you gotta constantly remind them.”
A glance at Penn State’s scholarship roster at the position offers plenty of insight into Huff’s conundrum as the 2017 season approaches.
Barkley’s preseason accolades and expectations are already abundant coming off his sophomore season in which he carried the ball 272 times for 1,496 yards and 18 touchdowns. Adding another 402 yards and four scores on 28 receptions, Barkley enters the 2017 season as one of the best running backs in the country.
As a result of Barkley’s prowess, carries were harder to come by for Penn State’s other backs last season.
On a team that had 540 total carries, Barkley accounted for more than half of them and quarterback Trace McSorley’s 146 runs boosts that number to more than 77 percent of Penn State’s carries from a season ago. What remained for the other NIttany Lion backs was a combined 83 carries, divvied amongst Sanders, Robinson and Allen for 440 combined yards and six touchdowns.
In charge of a group that is fiercely prideful and competitive, that makes Huff’s direction toward shaping attitudes and mindsets that much more important.
“The one thing that I preach, regardless of if it's Saquon or a walk-on… is that you control what you can control. You can't control how many reps you get or how many plays you play, but what you can control is your preparation up until the moment your opportunity comes,” said Huff.
Conversations in the running back room revolve around it, he said, beginning with an alternative definition to the standard of “success” as Penn State’s running backs have come to understand it.
“In the running back room, success has zero to do with yards, carries, catches or anything,” said Huff. “Success is the peace of mind of knowing that I've done everything that I can do to be prepared for the opportunity so that I can be the best that I can be when my opportunity comes. That's what success is.”
If that ultimately means just one or two carries in a game, Huff has worked to train Penn State’s backs to be confident that those attempts were their absolute best. Reframing the idea to be less about a statistical, numerical performance but rather about pushing oneself to the limit, daily, in order to maximize results, Huff is seeking out the best of each player.
And that absolute best, he continued, has everything to do with the process currently being undertaken by the Nittany Lions as they continue to prepare for the season ahead.
“I always tell the guys, one of our sayings in the room is that it catches up to you when it catches up to you. So if you're cheating on one point, it's going to catch up to you. Now, when is it going to catch up? I don't know. But it's going to catch up to you, so if you're not doing all the right things, at some point,” said Huff. “Is that some point today, tomorrow, is it the third quarter of the first game? Is it that I didn't study the plays but they threw me in there and they called that one play that I didn't go over? It's going to catch up to you.”
Completely in charge of their own individual efforts throughout the summer months, in practices, in film study and weight training, Huff has leveled a stark reminder of the team’s talent pool to keep the motivation going.
“What you can control is what you do every day to prepare,” said Huff. “What you can't control is when your opportunity comes. And I tell the guys, if you're not ready when your opportunity comes, it's probably going to be a long time before you get another opportunity because somebody else is going to step up. So I think that helps.”
The other, and maybe more important, ingredient to the challenge of balancing so much talent revolves around its star.
Or, rather, his qualities that have nothing to do with ego or pretension.
“I think the caveat in all that is because Saquon is such a good person, that helps those guys get along. If your best player is not a good person, you're going to divide the team and you're going to divide your room. So if Saquon was a bonehead, you would have a group of guys that liked him and you would have a group of guys that envied him,” said Huff. “And because he's such a good person, they respect him and they like him, so they understand. ‘Yes, I want to play. Yes, I am the best player in the country. He's playing right now, but when my opportunity comes, I'm going to show the world. In order for that to happen, I gotta prepare every day.’”
Although psychology has worked its way into Huff’s responsibilities with the room, it’s a challenge he said he loves having.
As opposed to uniformity in talent, or a lacking work ethic, Huff is left to make decisions in which multiple options could all produce optimal results.
“As the coach, I want to get them all in because I know how hard they work, I know how good they are, I know how talented they are,” said Huff. “So it's tough, but it's a good problem to have because you feel comfortable as a coach knowing we've got four or five options. Pick one. You're in. You're up.”