STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Surrounded by a swarm of media members Saturday night after a 56-44 win over Nebraska, Penn State star Saquon Barkley wanted to get something off his chest. Though he wasn’t yet ready to discuss plans beyond this season, the junior running back made it perfectly clear he plans to play two more games in a Nittany Lions uniform.
“Why wouldn’t I?” Barkley responded when asked whether he would suit up for a postseason bowl game.
“I understand why some other players have not played in a bowl game. I’m different than Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey and all those other guys. Our situations are different. We’re all different players, different people.”
Fournette and McCaffrey, standout running backs at LSU and Stanford, respectively, sat out of bowl action last winter. They went on to become top-10 selections in the 2017 NFL Draft and rank among the league’s most productive rookies.
A sentiment crept across college football that this approach quickly could become the new normal. Unless there is a national championship at stake, is playing it safe the smart move for young athletes with millions of dollars in potential earnings on the line?
Jaylon Smith, a consensus All-America linebacker and 2015 Butkus Award winner, was a junior at Notre Dame when he suffered ACL and LCL tears in his left knee during a Fiesta Bowl matchup vs. Ohio State. Though he still opted to declare for the NFL draft, that setback caused him to slide into the second round and miss an entire ensuing season.
Barkley understands the concern and isn’t surprised this topic became a centerpiece of postgame conversation.
“I really don’t think about it, I guess the media does,” he said. “Some people probably won’t play. And if they don’t play, that’s on them, and you’ve got to respect their decision. But me, I will play in a bowl game.”
Ultimately, Barkley is comfortable with his choice. The Heisman hopeful will play at least two more games for Penn State, and motivation lies beyond personal aspirations.
“It’s important to me because I love football, God’s blessed me with another opportunity to play the sport I love, and to be really honest, my teammates,” he said. “If my teammates came out and said, ‘Don’t play. We don’t want you to play in the bowl game. You don’t need to,’ I probably wouldn’t. At the end of the day, I’m playing for my teammates. I’m playing for my brothers. At the end of the day, from the offseason on [it’s been] blood, sweat and tears.”
Barkley, who totaled 224 yards and 3 touchdowns Saturday in what may have been his final game at Beaver Stadium, expressed understanding about why others would opt to forgo what essentially shapes up as a consolation prize game. However, that’s simply not his outlook.
“I’m really healthy right now, thank God. Leonard Fournette was banged up. Christian McCaffrey, at the time, I think he was banged up, too,” Barkley said. “That’s the decision that they made. The decision that they made is decisions for them, and you have to respect those decisions. When it comes down to it, they made a decision in the best interest of themselves. That’s not being selfish because they’re also taking care of their family right now and you see what they’re doing in the NFL. I’m not going to bash on those guys in the past because everyone is in a different position. Those guys had great careers in college. Me, personally, I have two games left.”
And what about beyond those two?
NFL draft analysts have widely projected Barkley as one of the top players off the board next spring. Starring at a position that features the shortest shelf life in football, it makes plenty of sense to get started with a professional career and all the benefits that accompany that opportunity.
“I told Saquon Barkley what he should do before the season started,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “We had a long conversation. I told you guys that, and somebody asked, ‘What did you tell him?’ I’m not sharing that with you. That’s between me and Saquon and his family. … The season is not over. I know we’re bringing this up because it’s the last game at Beaver Stadium this year, I understand that. We had one conversation before the season started but we haven’t really talked about it since, and we’ll have that conversation when the time comes.”
Barkley served up plenty of evidence for his consideration as a top NFL pick against Nebraska. He became the program’s all-time leader in rushing touchdowns (39), surpassed 1,000 rushing yards for a third consecutive season and reached 2,000 all-purpose yards this year.
This latest performance featured a 65-yard touchdown on his first touch.
Saquon Barkley with the 65-yard rushing touchdown!pic.twitter.com/9tsOLr03wn
— PlayerPlug (@PlayerPlug) November 18, 2017
Barkley admitted he felt different taking the field Saturday, though that had more to do with his supporting cast.
“It’s the last time I’m going to look to my left and my right and see [seniors] Mike Gesicki and Hammy [DaeSean Hamilton] and [Brendan] Mahon and all those guys on the field [at Beaver Stadium] with me,” he said. “I did get a little emotional [Saturday], but just because I won’t be able to play with those guys in this stadium again no matter what the outcome.”
But still, what if this dazzling showcase of a skill set that has NFL scouts salivating does turn out to be the grand finale of a legendary Nittany Lions career?
“If this was my last game at Beaver Stadium would it be a satisfying way to go out? I would say yes,” Barkley said.