Even if you didn’t follow college football closely last year, and merely checked in from time to time, you’re familiar with the three biggest stars returning this year, all of them juniors.
We have Clemson’s outstanding quarterback Deshaun Watson, who almost singlehandedly delivered the Tigers’ first national championship since 1981 with his mesmerizing 478 total yards of offense against Alabama in their thrilling 45-40 title game loss.
In Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the incomparable Leonard Fournette returns to LSU’s backfield after leading the nation with 162.8 rushing yards per game and totaling 1,953 on the year, the second-highest single-season total in SEC history. Not bad for a conference that can boast a roster of running backs that include Mark Ingram, Darren McFadden, Emmitt Smith, Herschel Walker and Bo Jackson, among countless others.
And don’t forget about last year’s Heisman runner-up, Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey, the closest thing we’ve seen to real-life video game dominance out of the backfield since Reggie Bush was tearing it up at USC. Last year, he earned AP College Football Player of the Year honors while setting the NCAA record for most all-purpose yards in a season with 3,864.
How sick was his season? My man averaged, (AVERAGED!!!) 276 all-purpose yards per game. And to save you the time if you’re looking for visual affirmation, just check the highlights of last year’s Rose Bowl against Iowa, where he accumulated an astounding 368 all-purpose yards, the most ever in the history of “The Grand Daddy of ’em All.”
We have yet to touch on other returning studs like Oklahoma’s quarterback Baker Mayfield or Florida State tailback Dalvin Cook. But in the midst of this remarkable pool of talent, there will always be some players that emerge out of the pack to establish themselves among that elite company.
Over the next few weeks, we’ll be talking about who some of those guys will be. Today, let’s familiarize you with Penn State’s sophomore running back Saquon Barkley.
Last year as a true freshman, he averaged nearly six yards per carry, accumulating 1,076 yards on the ground and seven touchdowns, despite missing two games with ankle and foot injuries and only starting six games. Barkley is the leading freshman rusher in the history of Penn State football and walks into this year as one of the Big Ten’s most dynamic players, alongside Northwestern’s Justin Jackson and Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett.
His “who is this kid?” moment came when he ran for 194 yards on 26 carries in a road loss to Ohio State. He also rushed for over 100 yards against Northwestern and Michigan State. And you won’t find many players that have a mix of his wiggle, quickness, short-burst power and open-field vision.
He runs the 40-yard-dash in 4.4 seconds, bench presses close to 400 pounds and tied Penn States power-clean record of 390 pounds. He led all Power Five running backs last season with nearly nine yards per carry in the fourth quarter.
Barkley was not heavily recruited coming out of high school. In fact, there were 23 players at his position that were ranked higher. But he proved the naysayers and so-called scouting experts wrong by breaking D.J. Dozier’s freshman running record and being named a second team All-Big Ten selection at season’s end.
Born in the Bronx, he moved to Pennsylvania at the age of five. But that warrior mentality from the Bronx is always there. Saquon’s father was once a New York City Golden Gloves boxer. His uncle, Iran Barkley, was once a boxing world champion in the middleweight, super-middleweight and light heavyweight divisions.
Barkley’s favorite running backs growing up were Curtis Martin and Barry Sanders.
Nowadays, it’s not a stretch to say that he might one day reach similar heights in the college game that they once did. You might not be familiar with his name right now, but come season’s end, if he stays healthy, he might just be the Big Ten’s new sheriff in town.