Penn State’s Saquon Barkley has the potential to be a “superstar.”
That was on display when he rushed for 1,076 yards during a standout freshman season. Now, the Nittany Lions coaches are looking to find other ways to put the ball in their playmaker’s hands, and they’re considering using him as a kick returner.
Barkley likes the idea.
“I went to coach (James) Franklin and asked him about it,” Barkley said of playing special teams. “If it’s running down on kicks or catching kick returns or even blocking, any way I can try to help the team win games, that’s just what I want to do.”
Franklin said the program has developed enough depth to be able to use a player like Barkley on special teams. The head coach said he has to consider his players’ value on special teams in making the decision to using a starting running back or corner back as a returner.
“Is his value so great on special teams over the next guy that it’s worth using him?” Franklin said. “And then also how you feel about the next running back and the following running back and the next corner and so on and so forth, or do you have another guy on the roster that brings similar value in the return game that it makes sense not to use one of those guys.”
Franklin pointed to Stanford as a model for success.
Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey set the NCAA single-season record single-season for all-purpose yards with 3,864 last season.
In addition to rushing for 2,019 yards, McCaffrey piled up 1,070 yards on kickoff returns.
The Heisman Trophy finalist averaged 28.9 yards per kickoff return and returned one kickoff for a touchdown.
“I think you look at Stanford and the McCaffrey kid who is a tremendous player that we all love watching that we’re forced to stay up real late to watch him, but we like watching him,” Franklin said. “That’s something that Saquon is seeing.”
Penn State averaged 21.9 yards per kickoff return last year, good for fifth in the Big Ten.
But the Nittany Lions didn’t return any kicks for touchdowns.
Barkley — a gifted running back who has the ability be a “superstar,” according to offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead — could provide a boost
When his team needed a big play during his career at Whitehall High School, he lined up to return kicks. He recalled returning one or two kicks for touchdowns his senior year.
“To be honest, when I went back there in high school, not many people would kick it to me,” Barkley said.
He plans to get some experience returning kicks during camp and hopes to be ready for that role this season.
His position coach, Charles Huff, is on board with the idea, too.
“As running backs coach, to me it’s about winning,” said Huff, who is also the special teams coach, “so whether it’s winning with the running back, whoever he may be, getting 300 yards rushing, or if it’s winning having the kick returner return two kicks for touchdowns, to me it’s about winning.”