COPLAY, Pa. — Miles Sanders is the top choice to lead the way in Penn State’s backfield during the post-Saquon Barkley era, but how James Franklin divides carries this season might not be so cut and dry.
Franklin hinted in the winter that without Barkley, it could be more of a back-by-committee approach than it’s been in the past, but Barkley isn’t concerned about the future of the Penn State backfield.
“Not only am I excited about Miles, because Miles obviously is an exceptional talent, but the other running backs [too],” Barkley said Saturday. “It’s just everyone expecting Miles to take over and while talent-wise, which if you watch football you can see why a lot of people think that and make that statement, but it’s up for grabs. It’s going to make them all better.”
Filling Barkley’s shoes won’t be a one-position job, as Franklin outlined at the start of spring ball. He cited the need for the tight ends, wide receivers and even the offensive line to step up and try and lessen the drop-off. But while Barkley was being celebrated Saturday with a parade in his hometown, across the state the Nittany Lions held their first contact practice of the spring. Barkley spent the majority of the past two years working with Sanders and had three years with shifty senior back Mark Allen, so he knows of their capabilities.
He also was there last season watching Journey Brown, the former in-state track standout, impress on the scout team.
“Mark is going to come out there and push them,”Barkley said of the 5-foot-6 senior. “[Johnathan Thomas] JT is going to come out there and push them and Journey Brown and the running backs coming in are going to go out there and push each other and bring out the best in each other. When that happens, that brings out the best not only at that position, but also on that team. That team has a lot of spots that you can say need to be filled but I don’t see it like that. There are a lot of guys who are going to need to step up and that’s their role, it’s their time.”
It was Sanders who roomed with Barkley during camp and on the road, with the Penn State record holder encouraging Sanders after the Fiesta Bowl win to please save some of his school records. While the Lions have to sort through the backfield this spring and will add a huge piece when signee Ricky Slade arrives this summer, the depth at that position has long been one that Franklin said is the model for how all depth charts should look.
Even in life after Barkley, there still is a lot of intrigue with a backfield that includes heralded recruits, a change-of-pace option in Allen and the up-and-comer in Slade. While the natural progression of college football is to usher out the old and bring in the new, Barkley said the spots that need to be filled on this team, such as middle linebacker, both starting safety spots and running back, among others, are nothing new.
“The guys that I just left with, the seniors, they were at that point one time where a lot of places needed to be filled but they stepped up to the plate and made plays,” he said.