The best player on the 2016 Penn State football team is Saquon Barkley. Saquon Barkley plays running back. For this reason, the running backs are going to be fun as hell in 2016.
This is a position that, like wide receiver, mixes a scary amount of talent and depth. Barkley is the standout, obviously, but as of right now, the Nittany Lions have three other dudes on the roster who play running back who range from "serviceable" to "legitimately good." It's a fun position, one that has slowly built itself back up from a place where the team was lining up fullbacks and converted wide receivers in the backfield. Shout out to the Bill Beltons and Zach Zwinaks and Michael Zordichs of the world, but none of them had the special talent that any of Penn State's four current running backs possess.
Last year, running back was a position of strength, almost entirely because Barkley is The Truth™. He was so good that he took the starting job from Akeel Lynch – who, in his own right, was great – by basically the fourth game of the season. While Lynch started games, Barkley was the featured back. Lynch ended up transferring, but Barkley is still around to go over and under and around and past anyone who tries to tackle him.
Let's dive into the starter/backup thing so I can talk about Saquon Barkley more.
Saquon Barkley. There! Done.
Ok, in all seriousness, Penn State has one of the most special running backs in America in the backfield. Barkley came to Happy Valley after flipping his commitment from Rutgers, and despite barely playing against Temple and missing two and a half other games due to injury, racked up 1,076 rushing yards and seven touchdowns. He was the first Penn State running back to rush for that many yards since 2011, when some guy had more than that, but that dude is lame so whatever. This was despite running behind an offensive line that really struggled to keep dudes out of the backfield.
Really, the only questions for Barkley are things like "what delightful ways will he be used in Joe Moorhead's offense?" and "can he become a little better as a pass blocker?" Really, the sky is the limit for this dude as long as he stays healthy – *knocks on every piece of wood within a half mile* – and he make writing a section about who's going to start at running back not fun. He's already a star, and he has at least two years left in the blue and white. Here's to hoping he rewrites the record books.
So the guys we know are Mark Allen and Johnathan Thomas. With Lynch's transfer and Nick Scott's move to defensive back, these two are definitely in line to get more carries in 2016. Allen is a small dude at 5-foot-6, 180 pounds, but he's quick as all hell and always seems like he's capable of breaking a big play off with his speed and agility. He's also apparently much better as a pass blocker than you'd think, which is nice. Thomas is a big, burly running back whose career has been limited to 11 carries due to injuries. Still, when he's healthy, every report about him ranges from "good" to "glowing," so here's to hoping he is able to stay healthy and establish himself as the kind of guy who can go for 4-5 yards a pop whenever you need to give Barkley a blow.
And then there's Andre Robinson. He is the wild card in the running back rotation, as he was actually considered a better running back prospect than Barkley for a while, but an injury during his senior year led to him falling down just about every recruiting website's ranking system. He still ended up being the number 257 recruit in the country, per 247's composite ranking, and he broke rushing records at Bishop McDevitt High School in Harrisburg that were set by dudes like LeSean McCoy.
Basically, there's a chance that Robinson can step in and prove to be the thunder to Barkley's lightning. He's only 5-foot-9, but he's 213 pounds and is built like a bowling ball. My favorite comparison for him is another Robinson: former Mississippi State running back Josh Robinson, who was about the same size (5-foot-9, 225 pounds) and frequently trucked defenders. Look for Robinson to be a guy who gets double-digit carries in 2016, and maybe is the workhorse during the Blue-White Game.
Oh and also Miles Sanders exists, but we'll talk about him later. My goodness the running backs are loaded.