An audible buzz floats through Beaver Stadium whenever Saquon Barkley, considered by many to be the top running back in college football, retreats downfield to prepare to return a kickoff.
The noise represents both the anticipation from some in the crowd that Barkley will break the runback for a touchdown, and prayers being said by others that he doesn’t get hurt.
The two-week-old Barkley experiment isn’t going to end any time soon. The Nittany Lions’ depth chart for Saturday night’s game against Georgia State shows the Heisman Trophy candidate as the No. 1 kickoff returner. That status, coach James Franklin finally conceded this week, has been in effect since the start of training camp even if the depth chart has said otherwise.
“I just didn’t want to put it on the depth chart from a public perspective because people are going to start kicking away from him,” Franklin said Tuesday at his weekly news conference. “I think that’s what’s going to happen now. I studied this. You look at what Stanford did with their starting tailback [Christian McCaffrey]. He had a huge impact as a tailback, as well as a punt-return guy, as well as a kick-return guy.”
McCaffrey in 2015 set an NCAA record with 3,864 all-purpose yards (276 per game), 2,109 of them coming on the ground, and finished second in the Heisman Trophy balloting. In two games this season, Barkley is averaging 214.5 all-purpose yards, and 23.3 yards on three kickoff returns.
Franklin said Barkley’s presence deep on kickoffs “makes people nervous to kick it to.”
“Saquon Barkley is one of the more explosive players, if not the most explosive player in the country, when the ball is in his hands,” Franklin said. “This is a way for us to pretty much guarantee that he’s going to get the ball, or they are going to kick it short to an up back and we are still going to end up with really good field position.”
The Nittany Lions have upgraded their return game. In addition to Barkley on kickoffs, wide receiver DeAndre Thompkins has taken over on punts. Thompkins, a redshirt junior, already has one runback for a touchdown and is averaging 22.6 yards – fifth in FBS – on seven punt returns.
Barkley doesn’t mind the extra duty, saying after the Akron game: “I want to be back there. I want to be on special teams. I want to help, whether it’s running down on kickoffs or blocking on a punt return or as a kick returner. I don’t see anything wrong with that.”
Of course, there’s always a “yes … but” in this area regarding the valuable Barkley, especially since the Lions have others who have returned kickoffs before, such as Miles Sanders (33 returns last year), Nick Scott (13 in 2015), and Brandon Polk (10 in 2015). Franklin wonders why you wouldn’t use your best player at a key position regardless.
“One of the things that I don’t really understand is everybody talks about how important special teams are,” he said, “and it’s just as important as offense and defense until you try to use your starters on special teams. I don’t really get it. To me, it sounds like talking out of both sides of your mouth.”
7 – Quarters at the start of the season in which the Penn State defense did not allow a touchdown until Pittsburgh scored last week in the fourth quarter.
9 – Consecutive games that Saquon Barkley has rushed for at least one touchdown.
7 – Games in its eight-year history of college football in which Georgia State has played on natural grass.
Three things to watch
Georgia State, Georgia State – Despite James Franklin’s habit of repeating his team’s next opponent, the Nittany Lions could have some focus problems considering last week’s victory over Pitt and next week’s Big Ten opener at Iowa.
Time of possession – The Penn State defense must do a better job of getting off the field than it did last week, when Pitt held the ball for more than 38 minutes and fashioned a pair of 15-play drives.
Third-down blues – While the Lions have scored 85 points , they continue to struggle on third down, converting 33.3 percent in their first two games, a rate that could be troubling when the Big Ten season begins.