The season is getting closer.
Penn State’s training camp opens Friday. So, as part of a series leading up to the Nittany Lions’ first official practice, we’re analyzing the five biggest question marks facing the program this year.
Every day, we’ll dig into a new question. The first:
Can Miles Sanders replace Saquon Barkley at running back?
Let’s get the obvious out of the way: Barkley was one of the greatest offensive players to ever come through Penn State. In fact, according to our 12-expert panel consisting of six former players and six reporters, he was the very best.
Those are some big shoes to fill.
Sanders said last month he’s been long tired of all the Barkley talk, but he knows it’s not going away anytime soon. Fair or not, his measuring stick is one of the Penn State greats. So what can fans expect? We’ll break it down with a closer look at running style, outside factors and touches/production.
Sanders’ running style isn’t a big departure from Barkley’s. Sanders said as much after the Blue-White Game.
“Honestly, we’re kind of similar,” he said at the time.
Both backs have a unique blend of speed and power. But Barkley was, in a word often used by his teammates, a “freak” — a 234-pound back with 4.4 speed. Sanders is quick, but he’s not as big or as fast.
Sanders, the nation’s No. 1 RB recruit in 2016, isn’t going to make opponents miss as much; he won’t hurdle or make two on-the-dime cuts that break four pairs of ankles. But he also hits holes quickly, and he shouldn’t be tackled in the backfield as much. He’s also more than adept at bouncing outside and finding open space.
Barkley could turn a 3-yard loss into 30-yard gain, but he could also transform a 3-yard gain into a 1-yard loss. He was the most explosive running back in the nation and averaged 5.7 yards per carry over his career; the more even-keel Sanders, with 56 career carries, is averaging 6.8 yards.
And, with a better offensive line, the potential to post better numbers than Barkley is definitely there, which brings us to ...
The biggest “outside” difference between Barkley’s production and Sanders’ hinges on the offensive line. And the great news for Sanders is this should be the Nittany Lions’ strongest unit since James Franklin arrived in 2014, when he couldn’t even field two full OL units at the Blue-White Game.
Last season, Penn State ranked No. 112 nationally in tackles for loss allowed by yielding seven per game. Over the last three contests, however, the Nittany Lions allowed nine total tackles for loss — meaning the improvement toward the end of the season was unmistakeable.
Sure, Brendan Mahon is gone — and making a bit of a name for himself with the Carolina Panthers. But five other linemen who started at least half of last season return, including two (Connor McGovern, Ryan Bates) who made the preseason watch list for the Outland Trophy.
Couple that with the fact that defenses will be focusing on the quarterback this season, as opposed to the running back, and that should open up more opportunities for Sanders.
It should surprise no one if Sanders posts up better numbers than Barkley, as long as he gets the touches. Which brings us to ...
Freshman phenom Ricky Slade and shifty vet Mark Allen will take some of the pressure off of Sanders — but Sanders will be the bell-cow, with McSorley getting the second-highest number of carries in the RPO offense.
Since Franklin became a head coach in 2011, his teams have averaged between 32 and 39 rushing attempts per game every season. Barkley received about half of those attempts the last two years — 52 percent in 2016 and 49 percent in 2017 — so, if that trend continues, Sanders should get about 210 carries in the regular season.
In the passing game, Barkley caught one ball for every four rushing attempts. In limited time last year, Sanders caught one for every five attempts. That versatility is part of what made Barkley so special, and Sanders said he has often stayed after lifts — usually about three days a week this summer — to practice his receiving.
“That’s the biggest thing I’m working on right now,” Sanders said last month.
Sanders will have plenty of opportunities to shine this season. And teammates have plenty of confidence in him for one big reason: He doesn’t have to be Barkley to be successful. He just has to be himself.
“He’s going to have a big year,” McGovern said last month. “I’m very excited.”