During the past two weeks, we’ve been making the case for many players to be considered as MVPs of the offense, defense and special teams. The turnaround season that culminated in a Big Ten Championship and Rose Bowl appearance was a complete and total team effort, and many are worthy of strong consideration for MVP honors of their particular unit.
However, if you need to come up with one single MVP for the 2016 Penn State Nittany Lions, the answer is simple- Mr. Saquon Barkley.
Barkley’s work ethic has been well-documented, and it showed on the field in 2016. As a true freshman, he burst into the scene with obvious talent and a rare combination of skills that make him a truly special all-around player. In 2016, we got an improved version of Barkley after he spent the offseason hard at work in the weight room, watching film, and fastidiously honing his skills to become the Big Ten’s MVP and one of the most dominating players to suit up in the blue and white in at least a decade.
Barkley finished the 2016 season with 1,898 yards from scrimmage and 22 touchdowns. His numbers are impressive, but only a small part of the story. What makes Barkley such a valuable player is his all-around skills and mesmerizing play-making keeps defenses on its toes at all times.
Barkley is a threat to reach the end zone with each touch. Thanks to an incredible combination of vision, strength and quickness, he has the ability to weave his way around the field, either shaking off defenders or leaving them in the dust completely on his way to huge gains. Even when defenders were completely zoned in on stopping number 26, he could find his way down the field. Sure, there were times when defenses succeeded in slowing him down- Michigan State held him to just 14 yards on 12 carries, while Indiana only gave up 58 yards on a whopping 33 rushing attempts. But in doing so, teams had to completely sell out on stopping Barkley. When they did that, Trace McSorley would simply go over the top for big play after big play to Penn State’s talented array of passcatchers. One way or another, Barkley would make them pay.
By commanding so much constant attention, he was just as valuable without the ball in his hands. Think back to Penn State’s 38-14 victory against Maryland in week six. Barkley came out of the game towards the end of the third quarter for a well-deserved breather. In a masterful move by offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead, Barkley checked back in for the final play of the quarter. Maryland’s safeties took notice and crept up towards the line of scrimmage. With the focus on Barkley, McSorley took the opportunity to catch the defense off-guard by going deep to DeAndre Thompkins for a 70-yard touchdown strike that helped seal the Homecoming win.
Other backs of Barkley’s size with tree trunks for thighs are at their best just running between the tackles, perhaps occasionally bouncing it outside and running over a poor defensive back. They just aren’t made to contribute in the passing game. That’s pure hogwash to Barkley. In 2016, Barkley averaged 14.4 yards on his 28 receptions. He’s not just standing around for a swing pass or a safety valve in case the protection breaks down- he’s getting downfield and making big plays through the air as well. And no Penn State fan is likely to forget his two wheel routes that went for touchdowns against Iowa and Wisconsin. Both times a linebacker was left alone to cover him, and both times he completely left them well in the dust by the time the ball was even in the air. It was pure, beautiful football at its finest.
Barkley also became a vastly improved pass blocker in his sophomore season. Time and time again, Barkley would give up his body to defend the rush, stopping a defender in his tracks and giving McSorley enough time to find the open man downfield.
At the start of the season, the common presumption is that Barkley would be joined by a stable of other backs that included Andre Robinson, Miles Sanders and Mark Allen, each with their own impressive skill-set. It was thought the others were too good to be kept off the field and help keep Barkley fresh. However, it became obvious the coaching staff felt he was just too good to be kept off the field for long. While it’s debatable whether or not this was the best way to go, especially considering how Barkley seemed to be wearing down as he played through some nagging injuries, it was abundantly clear the offense just wasn’t quite the same with him on the sideline.
While Barkley impact on the field can’t be understated, he’s constantly garnered praise for his work in the community as well as being a leader in the locker room. That is the type of quality that permeated a culture. Every player on the team sees his incredible work ethic up close, and they learn by example never to cut corners and what it takes to reach a championship-level.
Barkley isn’t just a human highlight-reel who will continue to be a fixture on SportsCenter. When you put it all together, it’s clear he is the Nittany Lions’ MVP, and will lead the charge in 2017 as the team sets its sights on a national championship run.