It’s not that Saquon Barkley just learned how to catch passes out of the backfield. Penn State’s multitalented junior tallied 48 receptions in his first two seasons, averaged nearly 12 yards per catch, and scored five touchdowns.
But Barkley’s performance on Saturday night, when he caught four passes for 142 yards, including a short check-down pass from Trace McSorley that he took 85 yards to the end zone, added to the sleepless nights that opposing defensive coordinators plotting to stop him will experience in the coming weeks.
In the fourth-ranked Nittany Lions’ 3-0 start, the 230-pound running back has caught 11 passes for 241 yards and a pair of scores. He averages 21.9 yards per catch, and his 80.3 receiving yards per game rank fifth in the Big Ten. His 804 career receiving yards are the most in Penn State history for a running back, breaking the mark of 799 set by Tony Hunt from 2003 to 2006.
McSorley, who has several options to choose from in the potent Nittany Lions offense, loves having another receiving threat out there.
“It helps our offense immensely with what he can do as a runner, being able to force teams to try and pack the box,” McSorley said Wednesday. “But then you get him out into pass coverage and that’s just one other guy we’re able to have out in space.
“We’ve already got a lot of really good receivers that are problems defensively, but then you add him to the mix and you make it a lot tougher on defenses having to cover five guys that are all a threat to be kind of home run hitters. For him to develop how he has in the receiving game has been huge to our offense.”
And it has made an impact. Consider that Georgia State loaded up to stop Barkley on the ground Saturday night and, except for a 33-yard run in the second quarter, limited him to 14 rushing yards in nine carries. Yet Barkley still was one of the stars of the Lions’ 56-0 win.
“I would say the value of a running back that can catch a lot of passes in a game is huge,” Barkley said. “It brings a different aspect of the game, a running back that can run routes, catch the ball out of the backfield. We already have so many threats on our team, and if I can continue to come out and help our team in that aspect of the game, I think that’s huge for us.”
Barkley has piled up 655 yards rushing, receiving and returning kickoffs, and his 218.3-yard average in all-purpose yards is second in the nation.
Barkley said he received his introduction to pass catching as a high school running back. Then after making 20 catches in his freshman year at Penn State, Barkley said head coach James Franklin challenged him “to try to become more involved in the passing game and running routes.”
He worked on learning that part of the craft with teammate DaeSean Hamilton and having free safety Marcus Allen help him out with catching while being closely guarded by a defender. He also stayed after practice to work on his routes and catch extra passes.
“Just any little thing I could do to take that part of my game to the next level,” he said.
So far, he’s making progress.