Penn State Football

Saquon Barkley stays grounded through viral hype after freshman season

Penn State sophomore running back Saquon Barkley talks to the media for the first time after spring practice on Wednesday, April 6, 2016.
Penn State sophomore running back Saquon Barkley talks to the media for the first time after spring practice on Wednesday, April 6, 2016. adrey@centredaily.com

“I’m a little nervous, I’m not going to lie,” said running back Saquon Barkley sheepishly, hooking his thumbs in his sleeves on a chilly Wednesday night at Lasch.

“It’s my first interview with like, media time. So I’m really hoping I don’t mess up.”

It’s my first interview with like, media time. So I’m really hoping I don’t mess up.

Penn State running back Saquon Barkley, who spoke with reporters after Wednesday’s practice

Barkley stood planted in the turf before a large scrum of curious reporters itching for their first chance to talk to Barkley, who, by Penn State’s policy, was not made available to media during a true freshman season during which he exploded onto the scene with a hurdle in the second week of the season and proceeded to rack up 1,076 yards (5.9 yards per carry) and seven touchdowns in only 11 games (six starts).

“Well, especially for guys like me, I’m not really big on talking to the media because I’m not really comfortable,” he said, shrugging. “I mean not being able to talk to you guys last year, and being able to see the older guys talk and see the right answers and how to communicate back to you guys really helped me.”

With the departure of quarterback Christian Hackenberg, Barkley is now the face of the team and one of the offense’s most talented players — and the player about whom fans have become the most rabid, some even creating video edits of his feats on the field and spiking his social media attention.

Even a video of former defensive tackle Anthony Zettel roundhouse-kicking a water bottle originally went viral because of Zettel’s penchant for displaying freakish athletic ability, but became more known as the season progressed as the video in which Barkley hit the ground with lightning-fast reflexes to avoid getting hit in the face with the zooming projectile.

“It was crazy,” he said, laughing. “I don’t even know how to explain it, I remember just jumping and he did it and a water bottle came … I mean, if I didn’t move fast enough I might not have even had a freshman season.”

Barkley didn’t even think he’d quite “made it” last season as the top back on the depth chart (Akeel Lynch, who has now transferred to Nevada, was once ahead of him) after his iconic leap over a hapless linebacker in Penn State’s win over Buffalo. His athleticism — the “Saquon-tum Leap” — ignited both the crowd and the offense on that drizzly day, and he repeated the move over two Illinois defenders and an Ohio State defensive back later that season.

I don’t think (there was) a time when I actually thought I was ‘The Guy.’ I mean, the Buffalo game is where I saw that I could actually play at this level. That I actually could compete with these guys. But I wouldn’t say it made me think ‘Oh, I’m the guy. I’m the running back.’ But that helped my confidence grow that I could actually play on this level.

Saquon Barkley

“I really didn’t expect to play as a freshman, let alone have a 1,000-yard season,” he said, citing the guidance of Lynch and Hackenberg as crucial to his success. “I don’t think (there was) a time when I actually thought I was ‘The Guy.’ I mean, the Buffalo game is where I saw that I could actually play at this level. That I actually could compete with these guys. But I wouldn’t say it made me think ‘Oh, I’m the guy. I’m the running back.’ But that helped my confidence grow that I could actually play on this level.”

The hype over Barkley has even spread to comparisons to other famous running backs — former Penn State player Curt Warner, for example.

“I don’t know. He’s pretty rare, pretty special,” said head coach James Franklin. “I haven’t been around too many guys like him. But I haven’t really sat down and thought that through. In terms of the combination (of strength and speed), he’s pretty rare. There’s no doubt about that.”

Added Barkley, “I’m honored to be compared to some great running backs. But I try to kind of block that out and be myself. Just try to be a better player every single day.”

He also thinks there is a lot he can continue to work on heading into his sophomore year, and said he feels “stronger and faster” than he’s ever been this spring.

“The pass blocking and seeing the blitzes, that’s where I struggled a lot last year,” he said. “Talking to the older guys and talking to the linemen and sitting down with the coaches every day, trying to get better every day … I mean the spotlight is a lot bigger than in high school and people notice you … But once again, I just try to block it out and try to be myself.”

The 19-year-old said that his parents, who he calls every weekend, and his Whitehall High School coaches and hometown community have helped keep him grounded, as has the current coaching staff.

“They know a lot of touches come my way, but they always tell me to stay humble,” he said.

Perhaps the most telling sign of Barkley’s modesty amid the extensive attention surrounding him was the question he posed to a Penn State employee as he walked away from the large cluster of reporters once his interview was over.

“Did I do OK?”

Jourdan Rodrigue: 814-231-4629, @JourdanRodrigue

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