Whitehall back shows versatility

One can only put so much stock in highlight tapes, but there is one play on Saquon Barkley’s that gives viewers plenty to see.

“Let me set up the scenario for you: He broke about a 75-yard run in the second quarter [against Allentown Central Catholic]. As he was crossing the goal-line, he tossed the ball to the official. Well, the official said he didn’t cross the goal line, so it ended up being a touchback,” Whitehall High School football coach Brian Gilbert said. “Now we have an irritated Saquon.

“The next time he got the ball, one of our tackles missed a block, so it was him and a D-lineman in the backfield. He broke through that tackle. A linebacker came up to hit him. He made a spin move. The linebacker dove and missed. And then he outran everyone for 80 yards.”

Barkley did a great job of eluding defenders during a record-setting junior season for Whitehall, a small Class AAAA school just outside of Bethlehem, Pa., but he couldn’t get away from Penn State. Bill O’Brien’s coaching staff began recruiting Barkley, a 5-foot-11, 195-pound tailback, last fall, and James Franklin’s staff picked up on it this winter, enticing him to switch a commitment to Rutgers, his favorite school growing up, to the Nittany Lions last week.

“Bill O’Brien did a good job of recruiting me. When he left, it kind of turned me away from Penn State. But the new coaching staff, when I got there, they were amazing. I got along with them. I vibed with them well,” Barkley said. “Just the education and everything, it was a better fit for me.”

Barkley rushed for 1,506 yards and – despite the apparent one the official ruled a touchback – a school-record 23 touchdowns last year in his first full season as an offensive starter as Whitehall, the smallest public school in in the Lehigh Valley Athletic Conference, finished with a 10-2 record. In addition to Rutgers and Penn State, Barkley had scholarship offers from Pitt, Syracuse and North Carolina, with other colleges looking to get involved.

Barkley has been told by his dad that he is distantly related to former Alabama rushing great and first round draft pick Bobby Humphrey, and his favorite player to watch is retired Detroit Lions All-Pro Barry Sanders. Barkley, though, tries to run with a style more like that of another of his favorite players to watch: Walter Payton.

“With the ball in my hands, I feel comfortable doing anything. I feel, if I need to make a guy miss, I can make a guy miss, and if I need to lower my shoulder to get some extra yardage, I’ll lower my shoulder,” Barkley said. “If I have to hit them with a stutter-step and beat them with speed, I can do that. I like catching the ball. I like reading the linebackers and setting them up before I get to them.”

Born in New York City and a fan of the Jets, Barkley began playing football when he was 7 and has always been a running back, although he saw his first starting high school varsity action with the Zephyrs as an outside linebacker. One of Whitehall’s assistant coaches work with Chip Kelly at New Hampshire, and the Zephyrs run an offense similar to what Kelly used at Oregon.

“He’s a very balanced back. I think that’s what makes him very recruitable,” Gilbert said. “We’ll line him up at slot as well as putting him next to the quarterback in our shotgun.”

Gilbert thinks Barkley, who does most of his damage running between the tackles, will play at about 205 pounds as a senior. Now a basketball player who used to wrestle, Barkley is very strong, particularly in his legs – he has a 400-pound squat and has been timed in the 40-yard dash in 4.43 seconds, according to his coach.

While still unsure of his major, Barkley, who used to volunteer in the local library helping younger kids to read, said he’s considering communications, business or physical therapy. He said backing off his verbal commitment to Rutgers was hard to do.

“I felt like I was going against my word,” Barkley said, “but my parents and coaches told me it’s like a business, and you have to do what’s best for you.”

The fourth commitment in a 2015 Penn State recruiting class that figures to eventually included around 20 players, Barkley said his views it as his responsibility as a leader in the class to reach out to other prospects the Lions are recruiting. That includes running backs like Bishop McDevitt’s Andre Robinson.

“I don’t shy away from competition. He’s a great running back. I’ve watched his film. I think the two of us together would be unstoppable,” Barkley, who has also been staying in touch with Baldwin offensive tackle Sterling Jenkins and Great Valley defensive end Ryan Buchholz, among others, said. “Whenever I see someone got an offer, I reach out to them. I think when we get up there in a couple of years, we can get this program back to where it was before.”

Robinson and Buchholz are scheduled to visit Penn State today along with Archbishop Wood linebacker Jake Cooper, who will be making his second trip to University Park in eight days. Cooper is considered a strong possibility to commit, and some believe Buchholz could pull the trigger soon, too.