- Associated Press - Saturday, August 5, 2017

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) - Sometimes Joe Moorhead will call a play and then turn to his players and colleagues on the sideline to guarantee it’ll go for a touchdown.

It’s one of the ways Penn State’s offensive coordinator like to lift his players’ spirits. His predictions came true a lot last season. A play like Saquon Barkley’s blistering, career-best 81-yard touchdown against Purdue come to Moorhead’s mind.

“It’s about instilling confidence in your players that any play you call has the opportunity to go the distance,” Moorhead said. “When you hand the ball off to 26, you stand a chance to be right more often than not.”

Barkley’s dazzling running style complete with jukes, jumps and spins has propelled him for 3,209 all-purpose yards and 30 touchdowns in two seasons and vaulted him into preseason Heisman Trophy discussions. It’s also why Moorhead plans to use his star back to wear down and saw up defenses even more this fall.

That’s a bad prospect for Penn State’s opponents who’ve been worn down and sawed up by Barkley’s ability to break tackles, find daylight and pull away. It might be worse for them. Barkley’s bigger, stronger and faster thanks to a productive offseason.

“Our coaching staff and our strength staff did a really good job pushing me,” Barkley said. “I gained weight this year. I’m at 230 now. I feel faster. I ran a faster 40 than I did last year in the past. That’s something I wanted to really add to my game because I feel like, when you do the weight room, it really translates to the football field.”

Videos from inside the team’s weight room of Barkley squatting nearly 500 pounds went viral last year. They were joined by clips of him power cleaning 405 pounds in January. In winter workouts he ran a hand-timed 4.33 in the 40 and in July he wowed spectators at a team charity event with 30 bench press reps of 225 pounds.

Those measure up favorably to numbers posted at the most recent NFL Combine. Oklahoma’s Samaje Perine was the lone running back to bench 30 reps and Barkley’s 4.33 would’ve been the fourth-best 40 time. Surely, the option of Barkley foregoing his final season at Penn State to jump to the NFL will loom throughout the season.

He was asked about it at the team’s media day on Saturday.

“I have not made a decision yet,” Barkley said. “I’m really just focusing on the season and focusing day by day. Right now my biggest focus is on camp.”

Instead of thinking about the NFL, or the Heisman, which only one Nittany Lions player - John Cappalletti in 1973 - has won, Barkley has taken a similar approach to the last offseason when he spent time watching some of college football’s other top backs on film.

Barkley, who caught four of his five receiving touchdowns last season, primarily wants to play a bigger role in the passing game. He’s drilled with the team’s top wideout and smoothest route-runner DaeSean Hamilton to learn new techniques.

“I feel that, and Coach (James) Franklin will agree, that I’m capable of being lined up in the slot, being able to run routes,” Barkley said. “I do feel like I’m capable to do a lot with the ball in my hand in space, and I just want to continue to grow in that area.”

But as Barkley’s highlight reel has grown, he’s remained grounded. Staying humble despite the expectations and hype that have swirled around him has endeared Barkley to his teammates.

When the Nittany Lions have strolled through town to meet fans and distribute posters each of the last two summers, Barkley has drawn the biggest crowd, huddles of kids and adults all with markers intent on getting No. 26’s autograph.

“Since that hurdle in the Buffalo game, there’s been a buzz about him,” Franklin said. “And he’s handled it really well, better than I would have ever handled it at that age. There’s no doubt about it. And I think that’s where he kind of has earned everybody’s respect.”

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide