Andre Robinson spoke to the two reporters in front of him attentively, but his eyes continuously darted toward a slow-moving scrum making its way toward him as he sat in one corner of the Beaver Stadium end zone during last week’s Penn State media day.
Teammate Saquon Barkley pinpointed the wake of cameras and microphones and questions roiling behind him, and once Barkley got to the metal bench upon which Robinson sat, the latter slid quickly to the side, out of the way as the horde engulfed the former.
Robinson had to laugh at the irony.
It’s become common knowledge that sophomore Barkley is the feature back; the highlight of Penn State’s 2016 season, in fact, before the team has even played a regulation down. It’s to be expected after the year he spent humbly padding a 1,076-yard highlight reel complete with leaps and hurdles over multiple defenders and juke-step-shimmies into the end zone.
Sliding to the side first to make way for the young juggernaut was 2015 starting back Akeel Lynch, who, after watching his reps dwindle, cheerfully transferred to Nevada at the end of last season. Robinson redshirted last year. Then there were Mark Allen, who spent most of last season on special teams but got a few carries — and scored his first collegiate touchdown — in garbage time against Illinois in 2015, and Johnathan Thomas, who requested to convert to a linebacker after incoming top-rated freshman back Miles Sanders signed with the Nittany Lions.
Behind the flash of Barkley’s emergence last season was a constant shifting of parts unsure where they may fit.
“Yeah, I’ve been waiting,” said Robinson. “Just trusting the process, and seeing where that brings me.”
This season, they know.
“I think we all bring a different mix to the table,” said Robinson. “Coach (Charles) Huff calls it our tool belt. Specific things that we use on the field that are different than anybody else. We try to build on that.”
Robinson, for example, is a “run-through-you” back. He could be utilized well in a traditional power-back up-the-middle gap play, or when fighting for a few extra inches to convert.
“I think I bring good knowledge of the offense, good knowledge of the game,” he said. “I can run inside, can run outside. ... Just trying to be the most efficient back I can be, and coach Huff always says that efficient leads to explosive.”
Allen, at just 5-foot-6 and about 190 pounds, is by several accounts the best pass-blocker of the group.
“Mark has a different style,” said offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead. “More of a scatback kind of player, but although he is a little smaller in stature, is a good pass protector and is good at running behind his pads.
“Some of those guys who are little guys kind of get knocked back in pass protection or aren’t guys that fall forward. Mark is a guy that’s very physical and a very tough guy. He kind of complements Saquon and some of the other guys that we have. Mark is a different style of running back, but certainly not one because of his stature that can’t run everything we have in our package.”
Added Robinson, laughing, “He might have a bit of a ‘little man’s complex,’ I don’t know.”
And then there is Sanders, who appears to physically be a mini-mold of Barkley and who joined the roster with the reputation of the highest-ranked preps back in the country and the belief that he will see the field immediately.
“It’s going to be what he’s able to handle,” said Huff. “From a physical standpoint, he’s probably good enough to play, but that’s not even half the battle. We’ve got classes. He’s got the playbook. He’s got the season to be able to handle maturity-wise. There are a lot of things.
“He is a freshman, so he’s away from home for the first time. So there are a lot of things that we’ve got to kind of see how he handles it all. … If he’s able to handle those things and he gives us the best opportunity to be successful, then we’re going to play him.”
Last season’s reshuffling has appeared to make things clearer for the ruling set of running backs. And better yet for them, Moorhead said there are several schemes he will run in which a two-back system is implemented in lieu of a tight end. With so many athletic tools on the roster, using them more efficiently than in the prior season can lead to high dividends for Penn State.
“I think that can benefit Saquon where it’s taking some of those carries off of him,” said Moorhead. “But we’re not losing any production with the other guys that you could put in there and be successful.”
Barkley is still the headline, it’s true. But this season, the substance behind the flash is just as important.