Something we all can agree upon: Saquon Barkley is one of the best running backs to ever come through Happy Valley.
He leaves behind a legacy at Penn State that will never be forgotten, as he thrilled with 3,843 career rushing yards and a school-record 43 rushing TDs. But the big question here isn’t whether Barkley is one of the best. He is.
But is he the best ever? Where exactly does he rank among Penn State’s storied history of backs? We asked our sports crew for the answer; here’s what they said:
John McGonigal: Greatest of all-time
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He didn’t hoist the Heisman Trophy or win a national championship, and he is not the program’s all-time leading rusher.
But Barkley is the greatest running back in Penn State history, without any question in my mind.
Barkley was a back-to-back Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year recipient, won the Paul Hornung Award as college football’s most versatile player and came away with three end-of-the-season conference honors (offensive player, running back and return specialist of the year) in 2017. Barkley, who was snubbed of a Heisman invitation, was also a finalist for the Maxwell, Walter Camp and Doak Walker Awards.
Unlike Curt Warner or D.J. Dozier, Barkley wasn’t a leader of a national title team. But after seven- and eight-win seasons in the face of damaging NCAA sanctions, Barkley was the driving force in bringing Penn State back to prominence. He was the main attraction and best player for a program that rebounded with 22 wins the past two seasons. In a pair of New Year’s Six bowl games — where the stage was brightest for the Nittany Lions — Barkley accumulated 481 all-purpose yards and five touchdowns.
Sure, Barkley isn’t Penn State’s all-time leader in rushing yards. That top spot belongs to Evan Royster, a four-year player.
But Barkley finished his career with 3,843 yards on the ground, 90 shy of breaking Royster’s record. In three years. With a worse offensive line.
He is the only three-year Penn State player to eclipse 1,000 rushing yards in each season and easily breezed by Lydell Mitchell’s career rushing touchdowns record with 43 total. Oh, and don’t forget his 1,195 receiving yards, 500 return yards and 11 non-rushing touchdowns.
Fans’ emotional attachment and investment in Barkley, who helped elevate Penn State from mediocre to great and captivated their attention every time he touched the ball, is immeasurable.
But the stats alone are enough to crown Barkley as Penn State’s greatest running back — and someone worthy of a retired number.
Josh Moyer: Best all-around back
For me, it comes down to two players: Ki-Jana Carter and Barkley. It’s so hard to compare the two because Carter ran behind one of Penn State’s greatest offensive lines and Barkley ran behind ... well, let’s be nice ... not one of the greatest. At the same time, Joe Paterno didn’t hesitate to pull his star back when games got out of hand. Carter could’ve easily had 2,000 yards in a single season if he stayed in during garbage time.
So I can’t say Barkley is the better pure runner over Carter. Maybe he is; I just don’t feel comfortable making that judgment. What I do feel comfortable saying: Barkley is easily — easily — the Nittany Lions’ best-ever all-around back.
Some, I’m sure, will make the argument for Lenny Moore, who played from 1953-1955. I get that. But Moore wasn’t a fan of catching balls in college, and he finished his career with 125 receiving yards. His production didn’t match his talent until the NFL. Barkley had 1,195 receiving yards, and he had more than a handful of highlight-worthy blocks too.
Barkley is the greatest in a lot of categories. So, even 10 or 20 years from now, I think that’s his legacy: Best all-around running back and one of Penn State’s five best all-around offensive players.
Gordon Brunskill: Greatest of all-time
My first impression of Saquon Barkley was jaw-dropping — seeing him hurdle over Buffalo tacklers at Beaver Stadium when he was a freshman — but the lasting images are a handful of far more important plays. They are seeing him sprinting to the end zone after the opening kickoff against Ohio State, or leaving tacklers grasping at air at the Rose and Fiesta bowls.
The two latter runs make me think of the 1995 Rose Bowl, with Ki-Jana Carter galloping across the green grass in Pasadena. Greatness can be measured statistically, and he is leaving with the school’s all-purpose yardage mark set in three seasons. That demonstrates his value and importance was far more than merely a ball-carrier out of the backfield.
Throw in the flash of Carter from that 1994 Nittany Lions season, and there is a better glimpse of what Barkley did for the program. There were more seats filled thanks to Barkley. Much like going to baseball games and not making a trip to the concession stand when Aaron Judge or Giancarlo Stanton are coming to bat, you didn’t want to be out of your seat when Penn State was on offense. The next highlight to be repeated for weeks and months and years could happen on any play.
There have been so many great backs to race across Beaver Stadium, and each has a reason to lay claim as the program’s best. Evan Royster has the yardage numbers, John Cappelletti has the Heisman, Franco Harris has the Super Nowl rings and best pro career, Larry Johnson had the propensity to break off huge runs, Curt Warner was so dependable with so much resting on his shoulders, and he and Blair Thomas have those national championship rings.
But if I was deciding who to pick in April’s NFL draft, the decision is easy. It’s rare to find everything — the style and the substance — that came in the best back in Penn State history.
Ryne Gery: Greatest of all-time
Barkley is the greatest running back in Penn State history. He has the numbers to claim that title, finishing first in program history in both all-purpose yards and rushing touchdowns while also finishing second all-time in rushing yards. And his ability to leave his teammates, opponents and fans in awe sets him apart from other Nittany Lions legends.
Barkley routinely hurdled defenders, made impressive cuts and used his speed to run away from defenses throughout his career. The Penn State running back seemed to break off a highlight-reel run every week, leaving you wondering how he pulled it off. Looking through old highlights of Penn State greats like Cappelletti, Carter, Johnson and Warner, you don’t see the same type of jaw-dropping plays Barkley made. You don’t see the same combination of power and speed that generated conversation about Barkley being one of the best running backs in college football in decades.
His name was mentioned in the same breath as Barry Sanders and Adrian Peterson. Ohio State coach Urban Meyer praised Barkley as perhaps the best “all-purpose running back” he’s seen in his career. Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald offered similar praise, saying Barkley was “maybe the best player I’ve ever seen on tape.”
Plus, Barkley achieved everything behind an offensive line that struggled throughout his career. He still piled up yards and put on a show with his all-around talent to leave as the greatest Penn State running back of all-time.