Saquon Barkley has already equaled his kick return last season. That’s by design, says Penn State coach James Franklin.
Franklin got the idea from watching Christian McCaffrey dazzle as a return man last year at Stanford.
“I’ve studied this, and what Stanford did with their starting tailback who made a huge impact as a punt return guy and a kick return guy,” Penn State’s coach said Tuesday on a teleconference with reporters.
Once Franklin decided to do this, the rest just required a little bit of secrecy. Reporters noticed this and asked Barkley why he was returning kicks when the Nittany Lions were up 35 points on Akron in Week 1. It still wasn’t clear then that Barkley was No. 1 on the kick returner depth chart, and that too was by design.
“Saquon Barkley has been our starting [kick returner] since camp,” Franklin said. “I didn’t want that on the depth chart because I didn’t want people scheming to kick it away from him. That’s the reality of it. Our team and Saquon have known he would be our starting kickoff return guy since the beginning.”
Now the secret’s out. Barkley returned one kick for 20 yards against Akron, and two for 50 against Pitt. Still, having Barkley back returning kicks gives Penn State another weapon, and gives more touches to the team’s biggest home run threat. Barkley had an 80-yard touchdown run against Akron in Week 1 and a 46-yard score against Pitt.
Putting Barkley back to return kicks also shows Franklin isn’t afraid to put even his biggest star player out there on special teams.
“One of the things I don’t understand is everybody talks about how important special teams are,” Franklin said, “and it’s just as important as offense and defense, until you try to use your starters on special teams. I don’t really get it. To me, it seems like talking out of both sides of your mouth.”
The comparison to McCaffrey makes sense, at least in that both players are big play threats any time they get the ball. However, Barkley has a lot to live up to if he wants to equal the Panthers’ RB’s versatility. McCaffrey had 45 catches for 645 yards as a sophomore and 37 receptions for 310 yards as a junior. Barkley had 28 catches for 402 yards as a sophomore. Solid numbers to be sure, but not quite at McCaffrey’s level.
Still, the sight of Barkley returning kicks is guaranteed to strike fear in opponents.
“We have a kick returner that I know makes people nervous to kick it to him,” Franklin said. “Saquon Barkley is one of the more explosive players, if not the most explosive player in the country, when the ball is in his hands. This is a way for us to pretty much guarantee he’s going to get the ball, or they’re going to kick it short to an up-back and we’re still going to end up with really good field position.”
“When 26 is back there,” LB Koa Farmer said, “I wouldn’t want to kick it to him.”