On and off the field, Penn State's Saquon Barkley -- the nation's most complete running back -- has put distance between himself and his peers in the draft
By Kimberly Jones | Published Oct. 18, 2017
Saquon Barkley walks down a long, narrow hallway in Penn State's Louis and Mildred Lasch football building. He is wearing a white t-shirt, dark shorts, and a backpack.
He has linebacker shoulders, square and broad. Penn State coach James Franklin is right. Barkley is a "Frankenstein running back." Big and fast, with tree-trunk thighs. His calves? Massive.
Barkley smiles. This is the guy who gave away the first gold medal he won as a high school sprinter. Who deadlifts more than defensive linemen, who runs faster than ... almost anyone. This is the person Franklin says sets the tone for the entire program: "If someone has a bad attitude, I'll say, 'How can you have a bad attitude when Saquon Barkley is doing everything right?' "
This is a 20-year-old who laughs that he only recently got his driver's license. Who hates losing quarterback drills to quarterbacks. This is the author of the most ridiculous touchdown run you'll ever see, in the Rose Bowl against Southern Cal, and whose afterburner gear leaves defensive backs in his dust.
Barkley has walked the length of the hall. He shakes my hand and puts his backpack on the floor as we sit in a small office. I remember being told to hold my voice recorder close because his voice will not carry. Sage advice. He does speak quietly. Saquon Barkley saves his loudest statements for the football field.
With remarkable detail, Barkey is recounting the 79-yard touchdown run last Jan. 2 in Pasadena. Early third quarter, Penn State is trailing USC by six. The run is supposed to go between the tackles; the Trojans defense forces it outside.
"I bounced," Barkley says. "The safety came down -- I think it was the safety (it was, Marvell Tell III) -- and I stutter-stepped to beat him with speed, get him to stop his feet. I felt like I was able to get inside the next defender (cornerback Ajene Harris). I made a cut in. In the moment, you just start reacting."
Six USC defenders get at least a hand on Barkley. None makes the tackle. After the bounce, Barkley scampers right, toward the Penn State sideline, then left into initial traffic.
"I made cuts, but if you watch the film, I was kind of in a little box," he says. "I made one more cut and got inside and felt like one of the guys (linebacker Porter Gustin) was getting ready to leave his feet to dive. So I pick my feet up. And I was just running, running, and my wide receivers really did a good job."
About those receivers: DaeSean Hamilton got an early block on linebacker Cameron Smith as DeAndre Thompkins disrupted cornerback Adoree' Jackson. Chris Godwin served as an escort to the end zone, shielding the speedy Jackson closer to the goal line.
"We knew we could spring a big run with a running back like Saquon. His speed is second to none," Godwin, now with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, said recently. "Trying to keep up with him was no easy task."
Just past the 50, Barkley begins a sprint to the left corner of the end zone, validating the schooling he has received from running backs coach Charles Huff.
"It's like geometry," Huff said. "Not much happens now that is good for the offense when you go east-west. At some point, you've got to make the decision to get vertical. He made the first guy miss, got vertical. Made the second guy miss, got to sideline, got vertical.
"To me it shows, in all the film sessions and meetings, he was paying attention to those things."
If the Penn State coaches have learned anything about Barkley since his freshman year in 2015, it's they can trust him. They thought the inside zone run would be a good play; Barkley made it exceptional. As the coaches watched the beginning of the game unfold, they thought Barkley was the fastest player on the field; he proved them correct. He scored standing up.
"It felt like a snap, an instant," Barkley says. "We were in the end zone. Everyone was excited. I looked at the scoreboard. The game wasn't close to being over."
Sam Darnold and USC prevailed in the end, 52-49, in a bowl game thriller for the ages.
From snap to score, The Run lasted 16 seconds. It will be remembered forever.
"On a national scale, I think that play kind of put Penn State back on the map. Everybody's watching the Rose Bowl," coach James Franklin said. "And that play put Saquon into the national conversation and into the thick of the Heisman race," ahead of the 2017 season.