Coming in as a five-star recruit with the option to pick whatever school he wanted to attend, the outside expectations were high for true freshman Miles Sanders this season, even with Saquon Barkley firmly entrenched as Penn State’s featured back.
The opportunities out of the backfield have been limited (25 carries, 184 rushing yards, two total touchdowns), but Sanders still feels like he’s made progress in his inaugural collegiate campaign.
“The season’s been great,” Sanders said Friday at Penn State’s Rose Bowl media day. “I’ve been blessed to be one of the freshmen to play in my first year. My expectation was to come in, work as hard as I can, and try to play as a true freshman. I got the starting kick return job, which is cool. I’ve been trying to take advantage of that opportunity.”
As Sanders mentioned, he has made an impact on special teams as Penn State’s primary kickoff return man. He’s come close to ripping off a score, impressing with a 33-yard return at Pittsburgh and a 48-yarder against Iowa.
“It’s a matter of time before I break one,” Sanders said. “I’ve been working on my third gear. Every time we practice on kick returns, I try to run the whole field and practice on finishing.”
More importantly for his long-term development, the Pittsburgh native’s time on special teams has him feeling more confident with the speed of the college game.
“I know what it’s like to be out there now,” Sanders said. “I’m getting comfortable, and I’m not getting nervous anymore. I’m getting a feel for this next level.”
Specifically, Sanders believes that his ball security has improved, as well as his explosiveness through holes.
Penn State running backs coach and special teams coordinator Charles Huff has a few things Sanders can work on, too, but was happy with how the Woodland Hills product has adapted to the off-field aspect of being at Penn State.
Huff knows there was pressure on Sanders to perform and live up to the five-star hype, but believes his player has handled it as well as he could.
Plus, it doesn’t hurt to have Barkley around as a resource. While the 2016 Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year wasn’t as highly-touted coming out of high school as Sanders was, Barkley understands what Sanders is going through with all the attention.
Sanders called Barkley a “mentor”, and Huff is pleased the two have such a tight bond.
“Saquon’s a big brother to him,” the coach said. “He taught Miles how to handle the expectation of playing and trying to win the Heisman with one carry and getting 1,000 yards and all that.”
With Barkley set to return for his junior campaign, Sanders’ role within the offense is still murky for 2017.
But with Barkley’s help and the valuable experience gained this season, Huff is confident Sanders can be special.
“The strength, drive, and working more than the next guy is something he’s still learning,” Huff said. “Having Saquon there, someone he can always chase and follow, that’ll help him get there. He’s got a chance to be really good and in that elite category of running backs depending on how fast he’s able to capture the other things.”