Miles Sanders set the empty container of mango Italian ice next to the 25-yard line and then waited for the inevitable question.
The Penn State running back said he knew it was coming. He’s been asked about Penn State legend Saquon Barkley, by fans and media alike, ever since Barkley announced the end of his college career on Dec. 31. But this question was a little different: How often has he been asked about the NFL’s No. 2 overall draft pick?
“I don’t really know the number, but I know every interview his name pops up,” Sanders said Tuesday night, turning to his left and letting out a laugh. “So I figured his name’s going to pop up here. But, like I said over summer, I just got to focus on being me and focusing on the team. I feel confident going into Appalachian State.”
Barkley, widely regarded as the Nittany Lions’ best-ever offensive player, casts a long shadow. And Sanders hasn’t been allowed to forget that.
During an availability over the summer, Sanders was asked if he was sick of hearing about Barkley yet. “You want the truth?” Sanders asked, smiling.
He’s not the only Nittany Lion to have such an unfair measuring stick. Curt Warner had to follow-up Matt Suhey, Curtis Enis came right after Ki-Jana Carter, and Evan Royster surpassed Tony Hunt.
But, as much as he’s grown tired of discussing Barkley, Sanders acknowledged his time with the Penn State great was incredibly valuable. The junior watched from the sideline last season as Barkley turned a career-high 54 catches into 632 yards and three touchdowns, and he said that’s when it hit him — with just how important it is to be an all-around back.
“I’m just waiting for the season to come to just show what I can do and hopefully be one of those all-around backs,” Sanders said. “Not just running the ball but blocking-wise, seeing the defense, being smart on the field and catching the ball out of the backfield.”
Barkley generated a Beaver Stadium’s worth of hype in college but, in high school, Sanders was the name that had the doors of Woodland Hills (Pittsburgh) acting like a turnstile for college coaches. In 2016, he was the consensus No. 1 running back recruit in the nation.
Cornerback John Reid still remembers watching Sanders’ high school film and thinking that Penn State was getting a good one. He feels even more strongly about that now.
“What I like about Miles is how north and south he is; one cut and explode,” Reid said after practice Tuesday. “Some guys will cut and then they’ll get up to speed but, as soon as he cuts and plants, he’s driving almost like when you’re coming up to the 200-meter and then, for the last 100, you drive off that corner. It’s the same thing you see when he’s cutting.
“You see a lot of plays like that where he’s able to spin off guys. I like his running style a lot.”
Sanders said he tries to watch — and pattern his game off — running backs like Barry Sanders, Todd Gurley, Le’Veon Bell, Ezekiel Elliott and LeSean McCoy. Those are some big names but, in Happy Valley, none are bigger than Barkley.
Sanders understands that. He knows the comparisons, no matter how unfair, are going to continue. But Sanders said he feels a lot more mature now; he recognizes blitzes, understands defensive fronts and can read linebackers. And he said time and time again this offseason that he’s not trying to be Barkley.
He’s just trying to be Miles Sanders.