Saquon Barkley drew a crowd as he walked across the New York Jets practice field in Florham Park, N.J., on Sunday. The former Penn State star cheered on high school running backs, including younger brother Ali, during The Opening’s Northeast regional camp, an event he participated in four years ago.
Fewer than 20 days from hearing his name called very early in the NFL draft, Barkley barked at linebackers and responded to relentless photo requests with his trademark smile.
“Whoa. That was cool,” Xavier Truss, a prized tackle prospect and Penn State target, said moments after a reporter used his cell phone to snap a picture of him and Barkley.
Beneath the surface, some level of “cool factor” routinely plays a role in college football recruiting. Make no mistake about it — Barkley is providing Penn State with an extra dose of it these days.
His NFL combine domination, lucrative Nike deal, association with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation Sports agency and an ongoing national media circuit have made him one of America’s most recognizable rising sports figures. Another example of this ascension occurred Monday night when LeBron James referred to Barkley as “Young King” on Twitter.
Ridiculous college highlights created. Major endorsements secured. King James approved. Cool factor accomplished.
Throw in Barkley’s unwavering positive attitude and genuine love for teammates, and he becomes the ultimate brand ambassador in modern-day recruiting.
“I never viewed myself as the face of Penn State,” he said at the NFL combine in Indianapolis. “There’s multiple guys at that university who did an unbelievable job. Even guys before the last two great years we had, keeping that program intact. Bill O’Brien came through and did a great job. Christian Hackenberg did a great job and set the standard and made you want to go to school there.
“You want to be part of something bigger than yourself. Even though we weren’t able to win a national championship, we were able to get a Big Ten championship and help get that thing turned around. That’s bigger than yourself. That’s something where you leave a legacy and people are going to talk about it for a long time.”
This legacy especially resonates with running back recruits.
When asked why Penn State established itself among his favorites, heavily pursued North Stafford (Va.) High School standout Devyn Ford didn’t hesitate.
“Saquon, of course,” he told Land of 10. “Seeing what he did there is a really big statement for the program. It makes Penn State a very interesting place to look into because their offense is very, very creative and they put Saquon in spots to make big plays all over the field. I think I’m also a versatile player, so it’s something that definitely stands out.”
Barkley was so much more than a ball carrier in State College. The recipient of the Paul Hornung Award — presented annually to college football’s most versatile player — he secured 54 receptions in 2017 and earned All-Big Ten honors as a running back and kick returner.
“Penn State creates dynamic opportunities for dynamic weapons,” North Stafford coach Joe Mangano said. “The out-of-the-box way they used Barkley — getting him the ball in so many ways out of the backfield, giving him a chance to make big plays on special teams — is very attractive to guys like Ricky Slade, Devyn Ford and whoever the next big running back recruits they go after.”
Slade, a 5-star prospect from Woodbridge, Va., who signed with the Nittany Lions in December, enrolls on campus in June. He and Ford both received all-state accolades as running backs and special teams returners.
Even as Penn State replaced its running backs coach — twice — this winter, Slade didn’t waver in his determination to join the program. A chance to do Barkley-like things served as motivation.
“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.”
Barkley leaves behind unfairly large shoes to fill in Happy Valley. Members of the 2018 Nittany Lions backfield, including former No. 1 running back prospect Miles Sanders, are attempting to make their case as spring practice progresses.
Penn State fans shouldn’t expect Sanders, Slade or any other running back to replicate exactly what Barkley provided during his remarkable three-year college career. Still, from a players’ perspective, any opportunity to do just that is quite compelling.
“Obviously I’m not Saquon,” Slade said. “But I think I can bring in tools that Penn State would be missing [without Barkley]. I think I can bring in tools that he had — in the receiving game, the kick-return game, and definitely the running game.”
See, this isn’t only about Barkley. It’s about how Penn State developed and disseminated his skill set.
“He gained like 20-30 pounds and continued to get faster during his career there, so Penn State definitely had something to do with that success,” Ford said. “His explosiveness is tremendous, so that says a lot about what their strength and conditioning program is capable of.”
Noah Cain, another top-tier running back in the 2019 recruiting class, expressed similar enthusiasm regarding the Nittany Lions’ willingness to use a premier player expansively.
“I followed Saquon a lot this year and I loved the way they put the offense around him,” he said.
This provides Penn State with the legitimacy to sell itself as a program that recognizes and maximizes elite talent. Many college programs promise this initiative, but few can point toward proof in the form of someone such as Barkley.
Cain, who will travel to campus from Florida later this month, explained the message was clear when Nittany Lions running backs coach Ja’Juan Seider offered a scholarship in January.
“They want a workhorse back like Saquon,” he said.
Barkley’s legacy in a Nittany Lions uniform is cemented. The impact of his Penn State success — and what may await in NFL spotlights — on this program’s present and future endeavors should reverberate for years to come.