Hall of Fame linebacker Jack Ham believes Saquon Barkley should be the top pick in April’s NFL draft.
Ham — a four-time Super Bowl champion and one of the greatest players in Nittany Lion history — has watched Barkley up-close as the Penn State Sports Network’s analyst and simply said, “You don’t pass on somebody like this.”
On Wednesday, Ham caught up with the CDT for “5 Questions,” where he discussed Barkley, James Franklin’s success and linebacker Jason Cabinda’s chances in the NFL.
Q: With Saquon Barkley, everyone has their thoughts about him. Where do you think Saquon stacks up among Penn State running backs?
A: I did see some of the clips from the Combine, and if Cleveland does not take him No. 1, they are absolutely crazy. A running back like this does not come around that often, especially at 233 pounds. That’s probably the biggest he’s been, which bodes well for him going into the NFL. He can carry the ball 20 times a game; he’s got that kind of durability. He’s a mismatch nightmare for defenses because you can run a lot of different offenses — a conventional offense with him in the backfield or turn it around and spread him out. That’s the problem teams had with him last year against Penn State. You put a linebacker on him like Michigan did, and he just runs right by him. As far as stacking up, it’s hard to do that. His niftiness is kind of Ki-Jana Carter.... But (Barkley) is the best running back Penn State has ever had, and he’s a classy young man, as well. I wish him well.
Q: People love comparisons. Is there a Saquon comparison to a former or current player you like in particular?
A: There’s not a comparison you can make. He does so many different things. I think the last time he fumbled the ball was when the kid from Maryland got the point of the ball like two years ago. I mean, he blocks so well in protection. He’s just such a complete back. The best compliment I can give is that I don’t have a comparison.... He’s special. And like I said, Cleveland has the first and fourth pick. There are a bunch of quarterbacks out there, and I know it’s a quarterback-driven league. But you don’t pass on somebody like this. You just don’t pass on him.
Q: After watching him up-close for a few years, how do you think Jason Cabinda will fare in the NFL?
A: He understands the game so well. The one thing about getting from college to the pros, you really have to be a smart linebacker out there, and he is that. He is a student of the game. I’ve talked to him a lot about that. He got his weight down a little bit this year to be better in the passing game, and he did that. He understands the passing game well. You can’t be a liability out there as a linebacker, and he’s got that capability of good zone drops and reading patterns. He’s a complete football player.
Q: For all the success you had in the league, what’s something you learned in your time at Penn State that helped you out along the way?
A: We played a Cover 2 defense back at Penn State when I was a sophomore, junior and senior, and what helped me transitioning into the pros was the mental part of the game. Most players are even on talent for the most part, and so you better make sure you don’t make any mental mistakes out there, especially when your defense gets a little more complicated and a little bit of ‘check with me’ on defense. You’re not calling your defense until the formation is set by the offense. Penn State was a good carryover for me. I didn’t have a whole lot of trouble picking up the things we were going to do in Pittsburgh because of all the complicated stuff we did at Penn State.
Q: As a four-time Super Bowl champion, you obviously know what it takes to win a title. Judging by what Penn State has done in the last two seasons, how close do you think they are to winning a national title?
A: I think what James Franklin has done has been nothing short of phenomenal. To build this program from the foundation and be patient along the way, to not burn redshirts, to get the depth needed, and obviously the recruiting he’s done, that’s how you build a program. And that’s how you sustain a program going forward. It’s always a work in progress, but we’re getting very, very close. We’ve been on the outside of that final four for a couple years now, and Penn State will be in the mix again next year, as well. That’s what this program has now become in a short period of time. So I give James Franklin a lot of credit. He’s done it the right way.... The arrow is pointing up in the right direction.