When you hear the phrase “Penn State running back,” one thing will come to mind to college football fans- Saquon Barkley slicing through defenses on his way to the end zone for another jaw-dropping play. Barkley entered Penn State as a four-star Rutgers decommit with impressive film and vast potential that he somehow exceeded shortly after appearing in his first game as a true freshman. However, there is much more to the position group than its one superstar. This could very well be the best overall running back group in the program’s history. Outside of Barkley, who enters the season as a legitimate Heisman candidate, the position group boasts a highly-recruited power back, an undersized yet powerful playmaker in the mold of Marice Jones-Drew and Dave Meggett, and, oh yeah, the nation’s top running back from the class of 2016.
We know Barkley is the starter and the primary focus of the offense. We know that Penn State has an abundance of talent at the position. What we don’t know is how it all fits together in year two of Joe Moorhead’s system. The prevailing notion heading into 2016 is that Barkley would be spelled for a few series throughout each game, allowing him to terrorize fatigued defenses in the fourth quarter with fresh legs. However, Barkley still kept a heavy workload as the coaches went all in with him in tight contests, even throwing in kickoff return duties at times. Now that there are several seasoned back-ups to step in, will we see a shared load or will Barkley prove to dynamic to stay off the field for more than a play or two at a time?
What can be else written about Barkley that hasn’t already been said? Despite dealing with a heavy workload and a nagging injury down the stretch, Barkley rushed for 1,496 yards and 18 touchdowns as a true sophomore in 2016. He is about as complete of a back as you can find in recent memory, as you have to really search to find a weakness in his game. Barkley’s combination of pure speed and field vision make him a home run threat each time he takes a handoff. He also possesses the power and downhill running ability to handle business between the tackles and rarely misses in short yardage situations. He’s also fantastic out of the backfield- in 2016, he set the the Penn State single-season record for receiving yards by a running back with 402. Case in point:
(By the way, Barkley was at the 15 yard-line when the ball left McSorley’s hand.)
Barkley’s big-play ability truly makes the offense go. He must be accounted for at all times, which opens up the offense. Opposing defenses typically focus on stopping the run, which allows Trace McSorley to go over the top to his many big-play threat passcatchers (all of whom return in 2017, with the exception of Chris Godwin). His impact on the rest of the offense also makes it difficult for the coaches to ever take him off the field- sometimes to the point of the detriment to the offense (see the last few minutes of the Rose Bowl, or the final regular season games from the last two years where Barkley was obviously banged up and worn down by an extremely heavy workload).
Barkley is well known for his work ethic, which should mean continued improvement in his junior, and likely final, season with the Nittany Lions. He already has lowered his his 40-time to 4.33, which is even more incredible with his muscular 233 lb. frame. He’s also regularly praised for his work in the community as well as being a team leader. It’s difficult to find much to critique with Barkley- perhaps he likes pineapple on his pizza or willingly listens to Nickleback.
The battle for the number two running back spot has not received the fanfare it deserves, as it will come down to two players who would be starting for about 80 percent of FBS teams. Also fighting for playing time is Mark Allen, a dynamic playmaker who has the ability to become a key player in Joe Moorhead’s expanded offensive playbook.
Miles Sanders (Soph.)- Sanders came to Penn State as the top running back in his class, and immediately saw playing time as a true freshman. His speed allowed him for early success, especially as the team’s primary kickoff returner. Sanders rushed for 184 yards on 25 attempts, an impressive 7.4 yards per carry, with a touchdown as a true freshman. However, it was apparent that Sanders could truly blossom with some fine tuning to his game- most notably, becoming a more patient runner and adding bulk to improve after contact. Well, Sanders had quite the offseason by adding around 20 pounds of muscle, which will allow him to run between the tackles and carry a heavy workload of 25-plus carries as Barkley’s heir apparent.
Andre Robinson (RS Soph.)- Robinson has the ability to really wear down a defense with his physical, hard-nosed running style. He maintained the role of Barkley’s primary backup for the majority of 2016, accumulating 141 yards on 29 carries (4.9 yard per carry average) and five touchdowns, to go along with two receptions for 42 yards receiving and an additional TD. If not for Barkley’s freakish strength, Robinson would be the team’s primary short yardage back- a role that may expand this season regardless.
Mark Allen (RS Jr.)- If Allen played for practically any other team in the nation, he would have a much bigger role in the offense. However, Allen does make the most of his opportunities whenever he stays on the field. Allen may only stand at 5-6, but is a fairly complete back, even excelling as an additional blocker. Like Barkley, he has outstanding quickness and vision which makes him very dangerous in the open field. As a redshirt sophomore, Allen had 115 yards rushing on 29 carries and a touchdown, with four receptions for 24 yards and a TD catch. There are several capable bodies in the backfield with just one ball to go around, but with Allen’s broad skillset and playmaking ability, he may play a much larger role in Moorhead’s expanded offense.
Johnathan Thomas (RS Jr.)- After spending a year a linebacker, Thomas is back to his original position. This means that either things did not just click for him on defense, or the staff is comfortable with the progress and depth at linebacker. Thomas is a powerful runner who showed great promise during his redshirt freshman season in 2015. He could develop into an asset, but finding carries in such a crowded backfield will be an issue.