As Saquon Barkley hauled in a check down from Trace McSorley and turned upfield, bursting 85 yards for a touchdown against Georgia State last week, the star running back’s versatility took center stage.
The play also offered a reminder of the challenges Barkley has been forced to face as a traditional running back.
With defenses focused on limiting Barkley’s production on the ground, the Penn State coaching staff has been forced to adjust the way they get him the ball in open space as the offensive line has attempted to create running room.
“We weren't as clean as we've been,” coach James Franklin said after Saturday's 56-0 blowout against Georgia State. “Having Mahon back [this week] I think will be really helpful. Then let's be honest, everybody's going into the game with a defensive model to say we are not going to allow Saquon Barkley to run the ball and beat us. I think we've been creative enough to get him the ball in different ways, and he's been impactful that way.”
In fact, Barkley’s 241 yards through the air this season are the most of any Nittany Lion, and are good enough to rival his mark of 307 yards rushing. With 548 total yards, Barkley trails only San Diego State’s Rashaad Penny and Oregon’s Royce Freeman for the most in the nation.
Broken down into pure touches, catching or carrying the ball, Barkley picks up 11.2 yards on average each time he touches the ball on offense.
He says the remarkable number, even given the small sample size of the season, is the result of an involvement in the passing game from an early age. Thanks to widely popular seven-on-seven touch football recruiting camps which practically eliminate the need for a traditional running back, Barkley became more versatile in high school.
Whitehall head coach Brian Gilbert gave Barkley the opportunity to line up as a slot receiver at these events, preparing him to be a dual-threat player at the next level. So when Franklin asked even more of him upon his arrival at Penn State, Barkley’s tireless work ethic and eagerness to do more kicked into high gear.
“I took it upon myself,” he said. “When we do one-on-ones, working with DaeSean Hamilton, working with the defensive guys like Marcus Allen to work on my routes, staying extra to catch the jugs with Andre Robinson, any little thing that I can do to take that part of my game to the next level.”
All of that work has paid off for Barkley, who has now eclipsed 800 receiving yards in his Penn State career.
Maybe more important than the pure numbers, that Barkley has been able to come through in the passing game when Penn State needs it most has also been of great significance. Barkley’s infamous wheel-route reception gave the Nittany Lions their first lead in the fourth quarter of last year’s Big Ten championship game, so the star running back said he knows just how important it is to be versatile out of the backfield.
“I would say the value of a running back that can catch a lot of passes in the game is huge,” Barkley said. “It brings a different aspect to the game, not only being able to run the ball. If you’re a running back, you can run routes. If you’re a running back, you can catch the ball out of the backfield. It just brings another threat. We really have so many threats around on our team and if I can continue to come out and help out in that aspect of the team, I think that’s a huge gain for us.”
All told, Penn State’s nonconference schedule showed opponents that no amount of defensive determination is enough to take Barkley out of the game completely.
Against this likely Heisman candidate, defensive coordinators will have to pick their poison.