WOODBRIDGE, Va. — Three touches. That’s how many it took Tony Lilly to realize his program’s offensive attack would probably revolve around Ricky Slade for four seasons.
During a preseason scrimmage game in 2014, the C.D. Hylton High School running back — then a freshman — dashed 70-plus yards for a touchdown on his third carry. Lilly, the Bulldogs coach and a former NFL defensive back, was convinced.
“He ran away from everybody on the field and immediately I went ‘Yeah, he’s our starting tailback,'” Lilly told Land of 10 during a Wednesday afternoon visit. “We talked about him coming out of eighth grade. It’s very rare for any freshman to have that kind of impact on varsity but I had a hunch he could be that guy. We knew it by the third carry in his first high school scrimmage.”
Slade suited up at approximately 155 pounds then; small enough to make his mother, Heather, quite nervous about seeing him compete against physically developed 18-year-olds.
Fortunately, he was very good at avoiding hits.
Slade averaged 8.9 yards per carry as a freshman, collecting 1,308 rushing yards and 21 total touchdowns. He scored 5 times on the ground in back-to-back games that September, finishing with 8 total touchdowns in three different ways during a 66-41 victory against Patriot High School.
That performance provided a turning point for Slade. Ohio State, Virginia and Virginia Tech each offered within a week. He progressed from potential junior varsity participant to Power 5 prospect in less than two months.
Slade’s ability to alter matchups in a variety of ways — he twice tallied 8-touchdown games that featured scores as a rusher, receiver and special teams returner for C.D. Hylton — attracted dozens of scholarship offers.
Today, those attributes are drawing comparisons to do-it-all former Penn State star Saquon Barkley, who is expected to be among the top selections in the 2018 NFL Draft.
“I’m not Saquon, but I think I can bring in tools that he had — in the receiving game, the kick-return game, and definitely the running game,” Slade said.
Slade, who is now 5-9 and 185 pounds, tallied 2,785 all-purpose yards and accounted for 40 touchdowns in 2017. Considered a 5-star recruit and the No. 1 all-purpose back in 247Sports composite rankings, he earned Virginia’s Gatorade Player of the Year, along with invitations to The Opening Finals, the Under Armour All-America Game and the Polynesian Bowl.
“I see a guy who takes possession and becomes a game-breaker wherever he is on the field,” Lilly said. “Ricky is a threat to score any time he touches the ball. He has acceleration that’s extremely special. He’s a [4.48-second 40-yard dash] guy and it takes him about four steps to get to it.”
Penn State said goodbye to Barkley following a junior season in which he filled up the stat sheet. His 2017 campaign included 1,903 yards from scrimmage and a pair of kick-return touchdowns.
The Nittany Lions leaned on Barkley to produce as a rusher and receiver in critical situations, and his value further elevated last fall when he started fielding kickoffs.
“Penn State explained they want to try to use me in the same role they used him,” Slade said. “That’s what [former Penn State running backs coach Charles] Huff told me when he was here, and James Franklin and [offensive coordinator Ricky] Rahne keep informing me the offensive scheme won’t really change for me.”
Still, Slade and his parents are quick to point toward Penn State running backs who’ve already invested time on campus for an opportunity to replace Barkley. Miles Sanders, a former 5-star recruit himself, spent the last two years waiting and working for a breakout opportunity, and other players are in the mix.
The Nittany Lions lose a unique talent in Barkley, but it’s fair to say few prospects in any recruiting class can provide the multi-faceted potential that Slade possesses.
“From an all-purpose standpoint, you can hand him the ball out of the backfield, you can swing him out of the backfield, throw the ball to him out of the backfield, or put him in the slot where he’s a great route runner,” Lilly said.
He added Slade had “the best hands” on C.D. Hylton’s offense in recent seasons. Barkley caught 54 passes in 2017 and spent a significant portion of the schedule leading all Big Ten players in receptions.
“The similarities in their skill sets are really intertwined,” Lilly said. “In talking with Coach Huff while they were recruiting Ricky, one of the things he said was Saquon, when coming out of high school, didn’t really have the hands that he has. Ricky’s ability to come out of the backfield and run that wheel route — which was a big play for Saquon in their scheme — means they won’t miss a step there as far as skill set goes.”
The proverbial shoes Barkley leaves behind in Happy Valley are absurdly large and probably won’t be filled by one player. However, due to Slade’s celebrated high school career and dynamic talent, it’s no surprise to see Nittany Lions fans looking toward Woodbridge ahead of his June enrollment.
“I’m not worried about comparisons,” Slade said. “I’m just trying to go up and ball, and whatever happens happens.”
During campus visits, Slade started establishing a relationship with Barkley. The two were in contact last season, and Slade hopes communication continues throughout his upcoming Penn State career.
Lilly, who believes his star pupil has “the ability to cut like Barry Sanders”, sees parallels between Barkley and Slade as big-play threats. Above all else, both are exceptional at evading defensive players, and that’s an impressive building block.
“Guys that are able to run like Saquon and Ricky, they have a complete understanding of the field,” Lilly said. “They have a peripheral vision that’s so broad and just a natural sense — knowing that there’s a body here and I need to make a move. Then there’s the ability to cut at full speed, and that’s a big difference from a back that has to slow down. Ricky has never had to slow down.”
Watch our Wednesday conversation with Slade here: