Heading into the 2016, I wrote a piece that asked: Is Saquon Barkley a Legitimate Heisman Contender?, which took a close look at his chances a darkhorse candidate.
Things have changed quite a bit for Barkley, who is now on everyone’s Heisman short list, as well as being commonly acknowledged as the nation’s top running back heading into 2017.
Thanks to a surprise Big Ten title and Rose Bowl appearance, as well as weekly jaw-dropping plays that were featured on SportsCenter ad nauseum, the question isn’t if Barkley is a legit contender, but if he can actually find himself as the recipient on the second Saturday of December.
Once again, let’s take a deep dive to carefully consider the merits of Barkley’s candidacy.
Barkley will enter the 2017 bigger, stronger, faster- a frightening thought for opposing defensive coordinators. By this point we know that Barkley is a warrior in the weight room, and he once again made the most of the offseason. Not only did he break his personal records in the weight room, he also bulked up to 230 pounds, while cutting his 40-time to a blazing fast 4.33. Honestly, if you’re going to create an elite running back, Barkley is clearly the model.
It’s no secret that a serious Heisman candidate needs to be on a national title contender who is regularly playing in marquee games throughout the season. As the defending Big Ten champs who will enter the season ranked #6 in the nation, Barkley should be playing in front of national audiences throughout the season, including many games which look to be the biggest national draw in its timeslot, if not the entire week of college football.
The 2016 season pretty much picked up where it left off in 2015 for the Penn State offense- the gameplan was simply Barkley, Barkley and more Barkley. This allowed teams to stack eight or nine guys in the box and key on Barkley. Things changed in week six as Trace McSorley became more comfortable in the offense- not just as a runner, but moving the ball through the air as well. Pretty soon the passing game was setting up big plays for Barkley, and more notably, McSorley’s emergence as a big-play QB took some pressure off Barkley for the first time as a Nittany Lion. Defenses had to pick their poison rather than focusing on Barkley to subsequently shut down the entire Penn State offense.
Barkley could also benefit from some much needed rest throughout the course of the season. Sitting behind Barkley is a talented group of running backs in their own right. Miles Sanders was the top RB of his class, and should certainly improve while playing a bigger role as a true sophomore. Andre Robinson proved to be a capable backup, most notably playing in relief of a banged-up Barkley in the regular season finale against Michigan State. And Mark Allen is a playmaker who has always made the most of his opportunities whenever he’s had the chance to see the field. This group could make the coaching staff comfortable enough to allow Barkley to take a series off here and there. If this happens, it could be the first time Barkley becomes stronger as the season progresses, rather than wearing down after carrying such a heavy load for the offense.
Finally, for the first time in nearly a decade, Penn State’s offensive line could be a strength. James Franklin has recruited extremely well in the trenches since coming to Penn State, and it seems as though the accumulated talent is ready to pay off in a big way. Many young offensive linemen were thrown into the fire in 2016, and more than exceeded expectations. Standouts such as Ryan Bates, Connor McGovern and Steven Gonzalez will only get better, and will be joined by several other top-flight prospects with huge potential. Barkley has been nothing short of incredible during his two seasons at Penn State- now imagine what he can finally do with some wide-open lanes to run through.
Unlike a year ago, the opportunities far outweigh the barriers.
First off, the Heisman is widely skewed toward the quarterback position. Since 2000, 14 of 16 recipients have been quarterbacks. Sometimes it doesn’t take great stats- you just need to play quarterback for a national title contender, such as 2001 recipient Eric Crouch, who throw more interceptions than touchdowns. The good news? The two outliers were both running backs- Alabama’s Derrick Henry in 2015 and Mark Ingram in 2009. We’ll get into it later, but 2017 may be no different as the list of preseason candidates are dominated by quarterbacks.
Speaking of which, Barkley will be sharing the backfield with another Heisman candidate- quarterback Trace McSorley. If McSorley shines in his second year as the team’s starter, it’s quite possible that the two split the vote just like in 1994 when Ki-Jana Carter and Kerry Collins helped cancel each other out, helping clear the path for Colorado running back Rashan Salaam to take home the ultimate prize.
Speaking of Carter, Barkley may face similar circumstances that hindered the Penn State greats Heisman chances- too much time on the bench. Because of the potency of the ‘94 Nittany Lions offense, one of the greatest in the history of the NCAA, Carter regularly checked out of the game in the third quarter as the benches were cleared. With Penn State expected to have one of the best offenses in the nation in 2017, Barkley may also often see his afternoons cut short- although as mentioned earlier, that may help his productivity in the long run. Is there a more exciting thought than a fresh Barkley dicing through a gassed defense in crunch time late in the season?
Lamar Jackson (QB, Louisville)- Jackson may be the defending Heisman awardee, but he seems to be an after-thought heading into 2017. For most of 2016, Jackson looked like the Super Tecmo Bowl version of Randall Cunningham. But once Houston offered a blueprint on how to keep Jackson in the pocket, he was incredibly ineffective. Louisville ended the season on a three-game skid, with Jackson completing just 38 percent of his passes with three touchdowns and three interceptions in that span.
Baker Mayfield (QB, Oklahoma)- It feels as though Mayfield has been under center for the Sooners since 2006, but he is finally entering his senior season. The former walk-on has gradually improved, and is coming off a tremendous junior campaign, completing 71 percent of his passes for nearly 4,000 yards, with 40 touchdowns to just eight interceptions. He also averaged 11.08 yards per attempt. Oklahoma has a week two showdown against Ohio State, who should once again boast an outstanding defense. Mayfield could see his Heisman hopes dashed early in the season or rocket near the top of the list depending on his performance.
Sam Darnold (QB, USC)- Darnold has become the flavor of the month for college football fans and NFL scouts alike, and rightfully so after his incredible performance against Penn State in the Rose Bowl. In just his second year of eligibility, Darnold may be the proverbial favorite to take home the Heisman before riding off into the sunset to join the ranks of #1 overall NFL Draft picks. Darnold also faces a tough test in week two against an always stout Stanford defense, which will be a huge barometer for his Heisman stock.
Jalen Hurts (QB, Alabama)- Hurts made his way into the Heisman conversation as a freshman, and as long as Alabama remains in the playoff picture, he’ll be a key player once again. If Hurts avoids any bad games, he could easily work his way up the list as other early season favorites fall off the radar. Heading into his sophomore season, Hurts has an excellent opportunity to take a major step forward, and will do so in front of large audiences each week- starting in week one with a huge clash against Florida State.
JT Barrett (QB, Ohio State)- Barret is considered a Heisman finalist heading into the season, hence his presence on this list. Otherwise, he hasn’t done much since his redshirt freshman season in 2014 to merit such accolades. Ohio State welcomed former Hoosiers head coach Kevin Wilson as its new offensive coordinator following the Buckeyes 31-0 embarrassment to Clemson in the playoffs, so perhaps he can help Barrett find that magic that made him one of college football’s most exciting players a few years ago.
Nick Chubb (RB, Georgia)- At the very least, Chubb is Barkley’s stiffest competition for the Doak Walker Award. If the senior can stay healthy, Chubb could put up huge numbers for the Bulldogs with a chance to shine in several high-profile games.
Barkley’s Journey to the Heisman
There are three keys for Barkley that must occur for him to stay at the top of the Heisman list- first and foremost, put up big numbers. This shouldn’t be much of an issue because, well, he’s Saquon Barkley. Not only can he take each carry to the house, he’s also a huge threat coming out of the backfield and should have no issue compiling big numbers on a weekly basis. Secondly, he needs to keep doing Saquon things- making those unbelievable plays that become ubiquitous on the highlight reels. This way, voters from across the country who aren’t likely to sit down and watch Penn State take on Georgia State or Rutgers will get a taste of the special type of talent that Barkley is, and not just a name with an impressive stat line in the box score. Finally, Penn State must keep winning. If the Nittany Lions lose more than two regular season games, Barkley’s Heisman odds will plummet as he will no longer be in the national consciousness that focuses on the few teams with a strong chance of being included in the playoffs by season’s end.
Heading into 2016, Barkley needed many of the preseason Heisman favorites to falter so he could work his way up the list. He now has the notoriety to control his own destiny. As long as produces, Heisman voters will be taking notice from the very start of the season.
One major key is for Barkley to play his best in Penn State’s biggest games. If Michigan or Ohio State shut him down when the eyes of the nation are upon him, his chances may evaporate. If he can put up 250 total yards and four touchdowns against the Buckeyes, a game that will likely have huge national significance, he could very well rise to the top of the Heisman contenders- a spot that oftentimes changes on a weekly basis in the world on college football.
Will It Happen?
Why not? Barkley is a special talent that doesn’t come around very often. His vision may be the one thing that sets him apart. While there are many incredibly fast skill players in the nation, not many can see the field like Barkley where he can make precise cuts to somehow avoid defender after defender. Combine that with a lightning-fast burst, and the strength to effectively run between the tackles, and you have a player with limitless potential.
Barkley isn’t just physically gifted, but possesses an incredible work ethic and drive for greatness. It’s no accident that a one-time three star Rutgers commit has become one of the nation’s best players. He wants to get better with each rep in the weightroom and with each play on the practice field. He’s a guy that you should never bet against- with some of the best betting sites giving the RB a 3rd joint favorite shot at the Heisman Trophy, alongside Barrett and Jackson.
Barkley is just one of approximately 11,050 scholarship players in FBS, and only one of them will be the 2017 Heisman recipient. The odds are long for anyone, but given the fact that Barkley should improve even more as a junior and will start the season in the spotlight, it’s no longer such a longshot that Penn State will have its second Heisman Trophy winner in program history.