Miles Sanders — sitting in the Beaver Stadium media room chair often reserved for Saquon Barkley — smiled through the clicks and flashing lights.
“I’m sorry,” Sanders said softly at last week’s Fiesta Bowl media day. “I’m nervous right now with all these cameras.”
But Sanders knows he will have to get used to it.
The heir apparent to Barkley, Sanders is the future at running back for Penn State. After biding his time and learning from a Maxwell Award finalist, the true sophomore with fluid cuts, solid speed and an underrated frame is in position to take over the 2018 starting role, assuming Barkley bolts for the NFL draft.
And if that’s the case — if Trace McSorley needs a new backfield mate come spring camp — Sanders, the coaches and his teammates are all confident he can be the guy.
“We’re excited about Miles and his future,” head coach James Franklin said. “He’s done a really good job behind Saquon Barkley, and when he got opportunities, really running with it.”
Added Sanders: “I think I’m ready for next year.”
A big reason why, Sanders said, is the standard and example set by Barkley.
Sanders watches Barkley’s postgame interviews on Twitter. He saw the work put in when no one’s watching — or filming — in the Lasch Building. He picks the brain of the two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, asking for advice and understanding how to deal with “tough situations.”
Since arriving in Happy Valley two years ago, the Pittsburgh native witnessed what it took to become a complete player, to earn recognition throughout the conference and then the nation.
The lone downside to that? More often than not, it meant Sanders was riding the pine.
Barkley played 664 of Penn State’s 830 snaps in 2017, per 247 Sports. Sanders picked up 105 plays, by far the most among non-Barkley backs. Sanders’ involvement rose, too, as the season progressed with 19 carries in the Nittany Lions’ final six games. Andre Robinson, who has since transferred, had zero touches in that final stretch.
Still, 19 carries in the final six regular-season games of his sophomore campaign isn’t what Sanders thought he was signing up for on Feb. 3, 2016. As the No. 1 running back recruit in the country — after rushing for 4,573 yards and 59 touchdowns at WPIAL powerhouse Woodland Hills — Sanders came to Penn State expecting more reps.
What he got was 25 carries, 34 kickoff returns and a front seat to Barkley revealing himself as college football’s most dynamic player.
“Having limited reps kind of humbled me and made me work more harder just to prove like what I can do and what I’m capable of,” Sanders said. “Instead of being mad about it and wishing that I could play more, I was putting my time in and waiting for my time to come.”
Franklin likens the Sanders-Barkley situation to what Aaron Rodgers went through initially with the Green Bay Packers, waiting behind legend Brett Favre.
“Aaron was able to come there and sit behind Brett for a couple years and learn and take it all in,” said Franklin, Green Bay’s wide receivers coach in 2005. “How many times do you see in that league, guys get drafted in the first round and they are forced to play, and sometimes they are not ready. ... (Miles has) been fortunate to sit behind a great player and a great person and a great leader and learn from him and allow himself to evolve into the job.”
To Sanders’ credit, Franklin isn’t the only who sees that commitment and development.
Senior tight end Mike Gesicki thinks Sanders has “a bright future” after learning under Barkley. New offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne, while calling Barkley “a physical specimen,” said Sanders “runs a lot more physically than people probably give him credit for.”
McSorley — who will be tasked with building a Barkley-like rapport with Sanders next season, paramount in Penn State’s RPO system — said the back’s maturity has noticeably grown.
“Last year as a freshman, it was just go out and play ball,” McSorley said of Sanders. “But now being able to understand situationally how plays develop and how to set up blocks and things like that, and you see his patience as a runner is a lot better now.”
With Dec. 30’s Fiesta Bowl likely capping Barkley’s Penn State career, all of that matters as Sanders moves forward.
The confidence placed in him by teammates matters. The approval from Franklin, Rahne and the staff matters. And, most importantly, Sanders’ self-belief that he can take the reins from Barkley in 2018 matters.
By all accounts, Sanders is ready to do it.
“(Barkley) told me to leave him some records,” Sanders said with a laugh. “He’s been telling me that for a long time because he thinks I can do something real special when I get my chance.”
The Nittany Lions are expecting nothing less.