Saquon Barkley goes from shy to the guy

Saquon Barkley goes from shy to the guy
Video saquon barkley reading eagle

To see Saquon Barkley hurdle defenders, break arm tackles or make dazzling cuts, it’s difficult to imagine that he played second fiddle to another running back in middle school.

It’s hard to believe that he couldn’t crack the lineup at Whitehall High School until the senior ahead of him suffered an injury.

“We had a pretty talented group of kids,” Whitehall athletic director Bob Hartman said. “He was the backup tailback. He didn’t start in seventh or eighth grade.

“He had a little bit of a Michael Jordanesque story. He wasn’t the guy when he was young.”

Barkley’s the guy now for Penn State, the fulcrum of the offense, after rushing for 1,076 yards last year, a school record for a freshman. He’s replaced Christian Hackenberg, who’s with the New York Jets, as the new face of the team.

“He’s one of those guys that has a lot of the traits you’re looking for,” Nittany Lions coach James Franklin said. “He’s got the mentality. He’s got the size (5-11, 223). He’s got the quickness. He’s got the speed (4.38 in the 40-yard dash). He’s got the power. He’s got the strength.

“I think that’s what differentiates him. The Good Lord doesn’t give you everything. For whatever reason, he’s been given more than most.”

Barkley burst onto the scene last year at Penn State, rushing for 195 yards against Rutgers in his third game and eventually displacing Akeel Lynch as the starter. He also posted big numbers against two of the better defenses in the Big Ten, running for 194 yards against Ohio State and for 103 against Michigan State.

Despite carrying the football just once against Temple in his first game and missing almost three games because of an ankle injury, Barkley finished third in the Big Ten in rushing and was named to the all-conference second team.

He had a far more productive season than Curt Warner (391 yards) and Ki-Jana Carter (264), two of the best backs in Penn State history, had as freshmen.

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“I would say last year exceeded my expectations,” Barkley said. “I didn’t expect to run for 1,000 yards. My mindset coming into the season was that I really wanted to play as a freshman. It’s something I really worked for. I was able to accomplish that.

“I was really proud of myself (when he found out he would play), but I knew I wasn’t finished. I was third or fourth on the depth chart, and I wasn’t satisfied with that. I wanted to continue to improve.”

At Whitehall, Barkley worked for everything he earned on and off the field. His coaches could see his talent when he was in middle school and when he was a freshman, even if he didn’t.

“At times in high school, he was timid and scared,” Hartman said. “As much as he was confident on the football field, he wasn’t as remotely self-confident off it.

“Whenever I called him down to my office, he always wondered what he had done, like he was in trouble. But he was never in trouble.”

Barkley remained a reserve until late in his sophomore year. He made his first start after senior tailback James Wah Jr., now a senior at Kutztown University, suffered an injury. He wasted no time in making an impact.

“Saquon wasn’t on anybody’s radar,” Whitehall coach Brian Gilbert said. “He played sparingly as a sophomore. We had a senior-heavy team and a senior running back (Wah) who was very good. He got hurt toward the end of the year. It gave Saquon a chance.

“I’ll never forget the first time he touched the ball, he took it right up the middle for 45 yards and a touchdown (against Delaware Valley) with the same running style he has now. I remember saying, ‘This kid’s going to be pretty special.’ “

That taste of success changed Barkley. The following summer, Gilbert noticed how committed Barkley had become to the Zephyrs’ strength training and conditioning.

“He was still a little unsure of himself his sophomore year,” Gilbert said. “He didn’t have a lot of confidence in himself. But something clicked that summer. He really started working hard. He was the first one to get to the weight room and the last one to leave.

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“That’s when he got his first (scholarship) offer. We were at a passing camp at Rutgers, and Coach (Kyle) Flood called him into his office and offered him. From there, he got hungrier and worked harder. He had a tremendous junior year.”

Barkley rushed for 1,506 yards as a junior and for 1,856 yards as a senior at Whitehall. After a trip to State College for Penn State’s 43-40 triple overtime win over Michigan, he began to have second thoughts about his commitment to Rutgers.

A few months later in February 2014, he committed to Penn State and signed his letter of intent with the Lions a year later.

After a cameo appearance against Temple in the opener last year, he rushed for 115 yards against Buffalo and then ran all over Rutgers.

Perhaps his most memorable run last season was his 7-yard touchdown against Illinois when he hurdled a couple defensive backs and lost a shoe.

“I was a little nervous in the air seeing three guys under me,” Barkley said. “A lot of my hurdles were pretty cool, but the Illinois one I actually scored on.

“I didn’t realize I was that high, and I was kind of like, ‘Wow, you’re dumb for jumping at the 4-yard line.’ So I put myself in a bad position, but I wanted to score really bad and try to put points on the board for my team.”

Once last season ended, Barkley became a frequent visitor to Penn State’s weight room. He lifted 390 in the power clean and was one of just three players to squat 600 pounds. He also ran the fastest 40-yard dash on the team.

“I’ve probably done more extra conditioning and sprints,” he said. “I want to make sure I’m ready. If there’s a game where I get 30-plus carries, I want to be able to take on that kind of load. I want to become a better running back.”

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D.J. Dozier formerly held the record for yards by a Penn State freshman with 1,002 in 1983, but his numbers went down the rest of his career. Barkley wants to build on last season.

He knows that running backs flourished the last three years at Fordham, where new offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead was the head coach.

“He has all the tools necessary to be a superstar,” Moorhead said. “He has small-back skills in a big-back body. He can run by you. He can make you miss. He can run over you. He can hurdle you. He’s good in pass protection.

“He’s able to handle the leadership role that is incumbent upon guys that are as good as he is. He’s a great fit for what we’re going to do offensively.”

Barkley also might be used as kick returner, at least on a part-time basis, after he and Franklin watched how effective Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey was doing that last season.

“If I could help out the special teams, I would,” Barkley said. “If it’s blocking, covering or returning, I feel like I could help. If Coach Franklin feels the same way, then I’d be real excited.

“I want to help the team and put the team first.”

The people at Whitehall are not surprised by his unselfishness.

“He has an ego and a swagger between the lines,” Hartman said. “Outside the lines, he’s a really nice kid who’s polite and well-mannered. He looks you in the eye. He’s very appreciative of the people around him.

“It’s neat when he jumps over people, but it’s pretty cool that he’s humble and respectful. That’s a credit to his parents (Alibay Barkley and Tonya Johnson) and all the other people who molded him. He’s a pretty cool kid.”

Contact Rich Scarcella: 610-371-5070 or rscarcella@readingeagle.com.