When Penn State RB Saquon Barkley steps onto Beaver Stadium grass this September and begins to embark on an anticipated Heisman Trophy campaign, he will be four years removed from the biggest decision of his life.
Well, the first biggest decision. Let’s take it back to September 2013 …
Fresh off a 213-yard, 4-touchdown performance for Whitehall (Pa.) High School, Barkley — then a junior — fittingly determined his college football future in a Big Ten stadium. Except, back then, Rutgers competed in the American Athletic Conference.
He soaked in a blowout Scarlet Knights victory before sitting down with former Rutgers coach Kyle Flood. Their conversation was a long time coming, according to Barkley.
“When they first offered me (on Aug. 3, 2013), to be honest, I was gonna commit right on the spot,” he told Todderick Hunt of NJ.com after the pledge went public. “When they first started recruiting me, it was my dream school. I got there and I loved it. I loved the coaches, I loved the offensive style and I just thought I would fit in well. And I was hoping they would offer me and they did.”
Hunt reported that Barkley actually privately committed to Rutgers that summer, then sealed the deal during that discussion with Flood. A scholarship offer from your “dream school” typically doesn’t remain unclaimed long.
Six weeks later, Penn State offered.
Pitt joined the Nittany Lions in offering the in-state standout that October. Regardless, Happy Valley always presented the greatest temptation toward a commitment flip.
“I want to be a reason why, part of a reason why, to make [Penn State] special again,” Barkley said during a November 2016 media conference.
Although former Penn State coach Bill O’Brien began the recruiting relationship, it was James Franklin who took things to another level during Barkley’s second visit to campus. Committed to Rutgers for seven months, he attended a Nittany Lions junior day event in February 2014.
Franklin was only five weeks into the job.
“We’re sitting in this meeting, and Coach Franklin got up and started talking to all the recruits,” Barkley told Jacqueline Kantor of PennLive.com in September 2015. “And he had this plan about dominating the state and then picking up pieces from around the country that could really help us out. And he was not just talking about national championships, or the Big Ten championships, but a plan laid out for the families.”
It’s a vision that’s quickly come to fruition.
Penn State won the Big Ten title in Franklin’s third season. He currently claims the conference’s top-ranked 2018 recruiting class, which includes committed athletes from eight states.
But that’s the present, and we’re here to focus on the past.
Barkley weighed the things he heard in that meeting, mulling Penn State’s fresh pitch despite a long-term allegiance to the Scarlet Knights.
“I wasn’t a big-time recruit [when I committed to Rutgers],” he told Kantor. “It was my first offer. When I committed to Rutgers, my friends were like, ‘Wow, you committed so early.’ And I said I don’t think anywhere else is going to offer me, this is the place I’ve wanted to be since I was a little kid.”
Penn State presented new thoughts, and pushed for a pledge under the previous coaching regime, though O’Brien never received it. When Franklin factored into the equation, a future with the Scarlet Knights no longer seemed like the “dream” scenario.
“When the opportunity came, I talked to my family about it, got them to talk to Coach Franklin,” Barkley said at the aforementioned November 2016 media conference. “When they got on board, it was a no-brainer to come to this school.”
He flipped to Penn State four days after the junior day visit.
Franklin proved to be a consistent thorn in Rutgers’ side throughout the 2015 recruiting cycle. He signed five New Jersey prospects, including breakout 2017 spring camp star Juwan Johnson.
Following his Feb. 19 commitment, Barkley became a frequent visitor to Happy Valley and a catalyst of the class. He went on to earn an invitation to The Opening finals and secured 2014 all-state honors in Pennsylvania’s Class AAAA.
Barkley rushed for 1,841 yards and 24 touchdowns in 11 games as a senior, per MaxPreps. He averaged 8.6 yards per carry that fall.
Here’s a rundown of how he was ranked among 2015 prospects by industry leaders.
- 247Sports: No. 6 running back; No. 77 overall; 4-star recruit
- ESPN: No. 24 running back; No. 291 overall; 4-star recruit
- Rivals: No. 11 running back; No. 117 overall; 4-star recruit
- Scout: No. 14 running back; No. 107 overall; 4-star recruit
Through two collegiate seasons, Barkley has rushed for 2,572 yards and 25 touchdowns. His 2016 effort (1,496 rushing yards) ranks fifth all-time at Penn State.
Several NFL draft prognosticators predict Barkley will be in the mix as the potential No. 1 overall pick next spring if he decides to skip his final season of college eligibility.