Penn State Football

Saquon Barkley’s reps limited while staff searches for ‘3-back’ rotation

Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley hands the ball off to Andre Robinson during spring football practice on Wednesday, March 23, 2016.
Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley hands the ball off to Andre Robinson during spring football practice on Wednesday, March 23, 2016. Abby Drey adrey@centredaily.com

For much of the media’s brief viewing of Penn State’s spring practice on Wednesday afternoon, running back Saquon Barkley was down on one knee, helmet off, on the sideline.

For him, it’s a good thing.

His limited reps are a sign that he has solidified himself as the team’s starting running back — and how could he not have done so, after rushing for over 1,000 yards despite missing 2 1/2 games to injury?

“There’s no doubt that we have a better feeling of who Saquon is,” head coach James Franklin said after practice.

For the rest of the running back corps, it’s not so bad either.

Joe Moorhead’s uptempo offense is a chance to get some serious reps in a proposed three-back system. Receiver DaeSean Hamilton illustrated just how fast the offense has been practicing while Moorhead’s system is being installed, and said that in 10-minute live periods, the team gets through 14 plays now as opposed to seven or eight last season — and still has time left on the clock.

Franklin said he doesn’t see Barkley sitting as “limiting his reps” so much as feeling out the abilities of the backs behind him, to see who will fit into that system.

Andre Robinson redshirted last season, but took several handoffs from both Trace McSorley and Tommy Stevens (who are competing for the starting quarterback slot) and made a few nice cuts as media watched.

He’s doing a really good job, he’s being patient and finding holes. That’s another guy who’s kind of a sleeper right now. He’s catching balls out of the backfield, making great jump cuts, he’s looking fast, looking explosive. He’s looking back to his ‘high school form’ right now, is what a lot of people are comparing it to.

Linebacker Jason Cabinda on squaring off against running back Andre Robinson

“He’s another guy that I would say there’s been a lot of talk about him this year,” said Franklin. “All his strength and speed numbers improved (Robinson was listed as running a 4.78-second 40-yard dash, a hair slower than defensive end Garrett Sickels’ 4.75, but looks like more of a power back).

“After the first day, (running backs coach Charles) Huff came in raving about how fluid, how smooth he looks. He’s got a different style, really all three of those guys, completely different styles, but really they all fit.”

Linebacker Jason Cabinda agreed that Robinson is one of the most “complete backs” on the roster.

“He’s doing a really good job, he’s being patient and finding holes. That’s another guy who’s kind of a sleeper right now,” he said. “He’s catching balls out of the backfield, making great jump cuts, he’s looking fast, looking explosive. He’s looking back to his ‘high school form’ right now, is what a lot of people are comparing it to.”

Mark Allen also took a few handoffs, and top signee Miles Sanders will join the ranks in the fall and is expected by many to compete immediately.

Hamilton moves inside

Receiver DaeSean Hamilton isn’t the longest or the fastest wideout on the team, but he might be the most dense after confirming with reporters that he has put on 20 pounds of lean muscle since last season.

He also admitted he saw others with a bit more length — Saeed Blacknall, Chris Godwin — running sub- 4.4-second 40-yard dash times and understood why Franklin and his staff made the decision to move him inside to a slot receiver role.

“I feel a lot bigger than I did last year,” Hamilton told reporters. “I think I move a lot better, especially moving in from outside receiver last year to slot this year, it’s a big difference. And just packing on pounds, and still being able to keep my footwork, and agility, and acceleration.”

It’s only his first week in the role, he said, but he’s starting to adjust and said he expects big things from the receiving corps in general.

“I think all the young guys are ready to come in,” he said. “Juwan (Johnson), Irvin Charles, Brandon Polk ... they’re all ready to step in. They know their role, they’re learning the offense just like we are. It’s not like they’re coming in learning things so fast, we’re all learning together.

“I think Saeed knows it himself, knows a big year is expected from him. He’s supposed to know, he knows what’s expected from him and what’s on his shoulders. I’ve seen improvement from him, he’s taken strides and he’s trying to be the best player he can be every day.”

Linebackers still limited

Cabinda may be healthy — and bigger, by all appearances — but an already-shorthanded unit is still limited as spring practices continue.

Penn State lost starter Troy Reeder to transfer, Nyeem Wartman-White is still rehabbing an ACL tear suffered in the season opener last season and Brandon Bell, per Cabinda, is limited after getting banged up quite a bit last year.

Cabinda said that younger players Manny Bowen and Jake Cooper are “growing up quick” to help fill position needs.

“They have to,” he said. “B-Bell and Nyeem are a little bit limited so those guys are kind of in there, learning, picking it up fast. Those guys are constantly coming up to me and asking questions, which is good. You want to have guys who want to learn. And that’s them.”

Franklin mentioned last week that once Wartman-White is fully healthy, the competition between he and Cabinda for the starting slot in the middle will likely get heated — neither, of course, would want to give that up.

“Nyeem is a good friend, that’s my brother to me,” said Cabinda. “We know how important this team is to us, and at the end of the day that’s what it’s about, the team. In terms of the position battle, it’s what will help the team the most, whether it’s me in the middle or it’s Nyeem in the middle, whatever that may be.

“For now, we’re definitely looking forward to that competition. That’s definitely what it’ll be. Nothing is set in stone, but when that time comes we’ll battle it out and whatever happens happens.”

Jourdan Rodrigue: 814-231-4629, @JourdanRodrigue

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