Penn State Football

Where does Saquon Barkley rank among Penn State’s all-time greatest running backs?

Barkley one of best around

Penn State football coach James Franklin talks Saquon Barkley.
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Penn State football coach James Franklin talks Saquon Barkley.

Evan Royster — Penn State’s all-time leading rusher — couldn’t help but laugh. A simple question, one he saw coming, somehow caught him off guard.

Where does Saquon Barkley stack up historically among Penn State running backs?

“That’s funny,” Royster said after a four-second chuckle. “I would put him in a completely different category. I mean, just create a new level of running back for him.”

In all likelihood, Barkley is at the tail-end of leaving a lasting Nittany Lion legacy. And what a legacy it’ll be.

The Heisman Trophy candidate has two entire pages of the Penn State game notes dedicated to him each week with headers such as “WILL SAQUON...?” (Usually, he does.) The junior has captured, tied or is within reach of at least 25 program records. He has already set the standard for career total touchdowns, rushing touchdowns, all-purpose yards, receptions and receiving yards by a running back, and more. With 3,629 career rushing yards, he’s 304 away from passing Royster on the all-time list.

The good thing for Penn State fans is, those numbers aren’t set in stone. Not yet.

Barkley guaranteed after Saturday’s win against Nebraska that, as long as he’s healthy, he’s playing these next two games: at Maryland and whatever bowl the Nittany Lions land in. He refused to talk about the future beyond that, saying it’s not something even on his mind.

“I would say to appreciate him,” said 2002 Maxwell and Doak Walker Award winner Larry Johnson. “Appreciate what he’s brought to the team and what he’s brought to the school. ... A kid like that doesn’t come around that often. There are a lot of talented running backs and a lot of talented players. But there’s none of them that has the story like he does.”

And few have the natural talent.

Royster is enthralled with Barkley’s ability. The former Washington Redskins back, an athletic runner between the tackles, “normal” in his eyes, has seen players embody individual aspects of Barkley’s game.

“But nobody that can do all of those things,” Royster said.

Penn State legend Curt Warner — whose 3,398 rushing yards are third all-time at at the program — said the guy directly ahead of him on the charts “ranks right in there” with the best backs in program history.

He believes, though, it is impossible to compare. Each one is different and unique in his own right.

To a degree, Lou Prato agrees.

Prato — the former director of the Penn State All-Sports Museum and author of several books, including The Penn State Football Encyclopedia — thinks it might be too early to tell where Barkley stands in the gamut of Nittany Lion backs.

“If you took a vote right now of all the Penn State fans and mentioned all these other running backs, most of them would probably favor Barkley because he’s the man of the moment,” Prato added. “You evaluate all players within their decades.”

The historian rattled off names that sound like Civil War heroes. Charley Way, Glenn Killinger and Harry “Light Horse” Wilson — All-Americans in 1920, ’21 and ’23, respectively.

In the 1980s alone, the Nittany Lions boasted Warner, DJ Dozier and Blair Thomas.

But Prato likens Barkley to his No. 1 Penn State back of all-time: Lenny Moore. Otherwise known as “The Reading Rocket,” Moore scored 24 touchdowns in 27 games as a Nittany Lion from 1953-55, was the first Penn State player to eclipse 1,000 yards rushing in a single season and returned kicks, too. He was a first-round pick in 1956 by the Baltimore Colts, where he went on to be a seven-time Pro-Bowler.

“In one breath, I want to compare what I’ve seen from Barkley to Lenny,” Prato said. “But I want to wait a few years yet.”

Still, Prato said in 10 years, “when someone goes back and really looks,” Barkley will be up there with Warner, Moore, Lydell Mitchell, Ki-Jana Carter and John Cappelletti.

The difference between Barkley and the likes of Cappelletti and Carter? Look no further than who was in front of them.

The 1973 Heisman winner and 1995 No. 1 overall pick were running behind beastly offensive lines. Cappelletti had 1974 All-American guard John Nessel, longtime Kansas City Chiefs tackle Charlie Getty and NFL interior line veteran Mark Markovich, while Carter was guided by three-time Pro-Bowl guard Marco Rivera, two-time All-American guard Jeff Hartings and former first-round tackle Andre Johnson.

Barkley’s line? Well, it’s not that.

“What would Barkley have done if he had a great offensive line like Ki-Jana had? He would win the Heisman,” Prato said. “I’m convinced he would win the Heisman.”

Added Larry Johnson: “You can really tell the value of a player when the ball’s not in his hands. I think once guys start mirroring him and he doesn’t even touch the ball, that shows how much of an impact he has on that team.”

Even without an All-American line, Barkley is still logging highlight-reel moments that baffle and numbers that impress. The Maxwell and Doak Walker Award finalist’s 188.18 all-purpose yards per game, 23 plays of 20 yards or more and 19 total touchdowns rank second, third and fourth, respectively, in the country.

As far as the Big Ten goes, the conference may not see another back like Barkley.

He is one of four players in Big Ten history to tally 3,000 rushing and 1,000 receiving yards in a career, joining Indiana’s Levron Williams, Northwestern’s Tyrell Sutton and Purdue’s Mike Alstott. Assuming he declares for the draft, Barkley’s 5,279 all-purpose yards and counting will be the most in conference history among three-year players.

Of course, 305 of those yards came in one game — a night two Big Ten coaches will never forget.

In Penn State’s 21-19 win over Iowa on Sept. 23, Barkley hung 211 rushing and 94 receiving yards at Kinnick Stadium.

Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz — the longest-tenured coach in not just the Big Ten, but all of college football — still found himself shaking his head when talking to Big Ten Network analyst, former Nittany Lion and Whitehall alum Matt Millen last week.

“We were just standing back in our coffee room, and I just told him, ‘I can’t remember a more impactful player that we’ve played during my 19 years here,’” Ferentz said. “And you know, there are so many great players in our conference. Probably two of the most dynamic guys that come to mind for me are Antwaan Randle El and Barkley, just in terms of what they can do and how they can impact the game. Barkley’s had a great career already, but the the game he played against us, I don’t know if anybody during my career has been more impactful.”

Two weeks later, Northwestern hosted Barkley and the Nittany Lions. So, naturally, Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald fired up recent film on the do-it-all threat.

Fitzgerald — a College Football Hall of Fame linebacker and two-time winner of the Bronko Nagurski and Chuck Bednarik Awards — witnessed something he’d never seen before.

Just one of countless Saquon moments that went viral, Barkley caught a pass out of the backfield, hurdled Jim Thorpe Award finalist Josh Jackson, withstood a blow from safety Amani Hooker, kept his feet and got a first down.

ABC broadcaster Chris Fowler could only say, “C’mon,” after the absurd moment.

Fitzgerald mustered a few more words.

“He’s just an amazing football player,” Northwestern’s 12-year coach recalled earlier this week. “The play at Iowa before we played him to me is just one of those plays where your jaw drops. ... Just one of those plays that will be etched in my mind for the rest of my career.”

That’s the kind of impression Barkley leaves on people. Barkley boggles the mind.

He did it with 195 yards as a true freshman at Ohio State. He did it in the Rose Bowl with a majestic 79-yard touchdown run that left Trojan fans bewildered. And despite a down year statistically (relatively speaking, of course), Barkley stunned Fitzgerald and Ferentz at Kinnick, juiced an already-amped White Out crowd with a nice 69-yard dash against Michigan and silenced Ohio Stadium with a 97-yard kickoff return to the house.

Every individual play — every hurdle, shake, shimmy and bolt — could be dissected ad nauseam. Franklin believes the time to do that is at the end of the season. With NFL draft talk starting to swirl — Barkley is the No. 1 player on Mel Kiper Jr.’s “Big Board” — and questions about the bowl game being asked, the coach thinks the “tone of how the Saquon conversations have been going” recently isn’t in the best interest of the player or team.

He’s got at least a couple games left, after all.

But when Barkley steps out on the Maryland Stadium turf, it’ll be tough not to think it’s his last Big Ten game. When he plays in a cushy postseason appearance, fans want to savor presumably the final Penn State performance of Barkley — a Halley’s Comet of a running back, a rare and special show.

For one of the greatest, if not the top, Penn State back, it’s not enough to be reflective after Barkley’s career. Those who’ve watched him from afar realize it’s something to be appreciated and celebrated now.

“I hope he breaks the record. I root for him every game to break it in that game,” Royster said of his all-time rushing mark. “I think Saquon is the perfect person to do that. I can go back and say, ‘Hey, it wasn’t some average Joe like I was. It was a guy named Saquon Barkley who, I have no doubt about it, will have a special NFL career.’ I’ll have something to brag about.”

Added Johnson: “Hopefully in years to come, in 40 or 60 years, he’ll be up there with one of the players who gets a retired jersey. ... He’s up there in the best backs at Penn State.”

John McGonigal: 814-231-4630, @jmcgonigal9

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