STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — When Saquon Barkley stepped on the field at Ohio Stadium a year ago, he had only 42 carries on his college resume.
When Barkley left The Horseshoe to return to State College, he had cemented his status as the next great Penn State running back. His performance — 194 yards on 26 carries — didn’t prove he could be a good college player. It showed he was already a strong NFL prospect, given the amount of players who are already at the next level that were part of that Ohio State defense.
Ohio State coach Urban Meyer echoed that earlier this week when he said Barkley is a future first-round pick. That’s pretty rarified company, given how few running backs are selected in the first round these days. Meyer has coached two first-rounders at Ohio State, Carlos Hyde and Ezekiel Elliott.
“It’s cool to hear around the Big Ten and coaches such as Urban Meyer and all the success he’s had in football, it means a lot that coaches are noticing you,” Barkley said Wednesday. “It also kind of sucks coming into the game that the game plan is probably going to be a little schemed around you. I like that attention though, because I feel like it helps the team out, especially the offense. That opens up stuff for other guys on the team, and I think we have a really talented offense.”
The first half of Barkley’s freshman year was a little quirky. He had just one carry in the season opener, but went over 100 yards in the second game against Buffalo and racked up 195 in the third outing against Rutgers.
He also missed two games because of an injury, so he remained a bit of a mystery when Penn State went to Ohio State in mid-October. That’s no longer the case, and arguably the three best running backs in the Big Ten will be on the field Saturday at Beaver Stadium when Barkley shares the field with Ohio State’s Mike Weber and Curtis Samuel.
While the Ohio State players have said they are ready for Barkley, he has also improved from last season when he set the Penn State freshman rushing record with 1,076 yards.
“The thing I really wanted to improve on was becoming a complete back and a complete player overall,” Barkley said. “I wanted to get better at running the ball, seeing blitzes and picking up blitzes, blocking, catching the ball a little better, being a better teammate, just being an overall team guy. So far, I think I’ve improved as a player. One, I don’t really think about the numbers. I think I’m doing a really good job in the locker room trying to be a leader, trying to step up.
“I’m seeing blitzes that I wouldn’t have seen last year. That’s one area I’m really proud of myself and see improvement.”
Penn State coach James Franklin confirmed that assessment, saying Barkley was already really good at pass protection for a freshman in 2015 but is indeed improved in 2016.
Teams have zeroed in on him, so Barkley has looked for other ways to contribute. He’s now an excellent blocker in pass protection. He has 11 catches, including four against Michigan for 76 yards when Penn State’s offense was completely stifled.
He did shake free for a huge game two weeks ago against Maryland. Barkley finished with career highs in carries (31) and rushing yards (202), including one of his signature hurdles during a run that also featured a sweet spin move near the end.
“That’s just [No.] 26 being 26,” Penn State tight end Mike Gesicki said.
If Penn State is going to upset No. 2-ranked Ohio State, the Nittany Lions are going to need a heavy dose of No. 26. As it turns out, another great running back said he learned from watching Barkley pick apart Ohio State’s defense in 2015.
Wisconsin tailback Corey Clement said film of Barkley rampaging for 194 yards helped him prepare for the Buckeyes, and he finished with 164 last week against Ohio State. Clement said Barkley’s patience in the face of an incredible opponent was a teaching moment. Perhaps his work against the Buckeyes this past week will have helped return the favor.
“I think it is real critical to be patient in the running game,” Barkley said. “One, you never know when anything is going to split open. If you rush it, you might miss a hole or a big play opportunity. One thing I’ve really tried to focus on is to stay patient in the run game and take what the defense gives you, stick with the game plan and stick with the scheme until something splits open.
“That’s what I’ve been trying to do all year, just stay patient and trust my O-line and the scheme.”