Penn State position analysis: Running back

Penn State running back Saquon Barkley greets other players as they come out for warm-ups at the Rose Bowl game in January.

Spotlight on: Saquon Barkley

Who else? Barkley begins 2017 as the nation’s No. 1 running back in the eyes of many, and it’s easy to see why. He is coming off a season in which he rushed for 1,496 yards and 18 touchdowns, caught 28 passes (four for touchdowns) and amassed 1,972 all-purpose yards, second-highest total in program history, and was named Big Ten offensive player of the year. He concluded his season with 194 rushing yards and 306 all-purpose yards in the Rose Bowl against Southern California, and provided the game’s definitive highlight with a 79-yard TD run.

Barkley worked in the off-season as if he felt he had to win his job all over again. He looked to shatter personal bests in the weight room and did so, achieving lifts of 460 pounds in the bench press and 650 in the squat. He also bench-pressed 225 pounds 30 times at Penn State’s Lift for Life fund-raiser. He got bigger (230 pounds) and faster (4.33 seconds in the 40-yard dash). He is a strong leader on offense, especially among the running backs. During a training-camp practice availability for reporters, he barked at one of the freshmen, and that was fine with running backs coach Charles Huff. “Like Saquon tells all of us,” Huff said, “we’re not going to baby you along. You’re going to learn the way we did, the hard way. … He holds himself up to a high standard in everything he does.”

Apparently, the sky is the limit as for how Barkley will be used more this season in coordinator Joe Moorhead’s offense, meaning more ways to get the ball in space, and perhaps more creative use of him in the passing game. With a diversified passing game and an improved offensive line, Barkley will look to surpass his numbers from last year and help Penn State return to national prominence, perhaps even a College Football Playoff spot.

In the wings: Miles Sanders, Andre Robinson

Sanders came to Penn State as the No. 1-ranked high school running back in the nation in the 2016 recruiting class and won the job as the team’s primary kickoff returner, setting a program record with 33 returns. He averaged 7.4 yards on 25 rushes with a long gain of 57, with a 25-yard touchdown run and 21-yard TD catch. He weighed 209 pounds in training camp, 14 more than a year ago. Depending on how the coaches decide to limit the workload of Barkley, who averaged 19.4 carries last season, Sanders could be on the field more.

Robinson redshirted his first season and served pretty much as Barkley’s backup last year. He averaged 4.9 yards on 29 carries, finished third on the team in rushing touchdowns with five, and caught a 40-yard pass against Michigan State for a TD. At 5-9 and 216 pounds, he has a low center of gravity that makes him rather difficult to bring down. It will be an interesting dynamic to see who gets more playing time in relief of Barkley.

The X-factor

A lot of curiosity follows true freshman Journey Brown, who rushed for 2,791 yards, averaged 12.8 yards per carry and scored 45 touchdowns (no, these are not misprints) last season for Meadville (Pa.) High School. He rushed for 722 yards and 10 touchdowns in one game as a junior. He also won a pair of PIAA state championships in the 100-meter dash. With a loaded backfield, he could redshirt, but Huff said he has been pleasantly surprised by Brown’s “ability to retain the information” as a freshman.