Barkley hopes to improve

UNIVERSITY PARK — Saquon Barkley can actually still improve his all-around game, which if you think about it, is a scary notion.

No sooner than he sat down for his media day press conference Saturday afternoon did Barkley receive a question about the Heisman Trophy.

“The Heisman award is a great award, obviously,” the standout Penn State junior said. “It’s given to the best player in college football, and to even be mentioned in that category is an honor.”

Barkley isn’t just being mentioned as a Heisman candidate, he’s one of the leading contenders entering the season. That’s based on what he’s done so far in his career, but one of the reasons he stands a good chance of actually winning the Heisman is that he’s expected to add even more elements to his game this season.

He will have to, because every team Penn State plays will come into the game with one thing in mind: stop No. 26.

“We’re going to use Saquon in every way we possibly can to give our team the best chance to be successful, short term and long term,” coach James Franklin said. “That’s obviously running the ball. That’s getting him more involved in the passing game because everyone is going to be focused on not allowing Saquon Barkley to beat them as a runner. And then also in special teams, as well.”

It would seem to be a given that Barkley will give up his final year of eligibility at PSU and declare for next year’s draft.

“No, I have not made a decision yet,” he said when asked Saturday. “I’m really just focusing on the season and focusing day by day. Right now my biggest focus is on camp and the sixth practice.”

As gifted of a runner as there is in the country, and perhaps as strong of a college football running back as anyone has ever seen, Barkley has a skill set, body and work ethic that one would duplicate if setting out to build the perfect tailback.

He mentioned how he enjoys watching Steelers standout Le’Veon Bell, arguably the NFL’s best all-around running back (1,268 yards rushing and 75 catches last year). The thought of Barkley potentially being able to do what Bell does in the passing game is the most intriguing aspect of trying to predict his upcoming season and future.

Barkley catches the ball well out of the backfield, finishing with 28 receptions for 402 yards and four touchdowns last season. It appears the plan for him this year will be to become an even bigger weapon in that area.

“That idea came to my head when Coach Franklin challenged me to try to become a better receiver, a better player overall,” Barkley said. “I feel that, and Coach Franklin will agree, that I’m capable of being lined up in the slot, being able to run routes.”

Let’s stop there for a moment.

Imagine Barkley lined up in the slot running routes. With his speed. With his footwork. With his field vision.

Who’s going to cover him, a linebacker? Yeah, good luck with that.

“I did a lot of one-on-one reps this summer with the defense, against DBs and linebackers and working those guys … and trying to really fix my routes to become more of a threat in the offense,” Barkley said.

Barkley showed good hands catching the ball a year ago and rarely dropped a pass — on short or deep throws — so it’s not like he needs much improvement to become a great pass-catching tailback. The only issue last season was that PSU didn’t throw to him more often, and that should change this year as it’s certainly possible his receptions total could rise to the 40-50 range.

Barkley ran for 1,496 yards and 18 TDs a year ago, averaging 5.5 yards per carry. No story about his college career can be told without highlighting his incredible 79-yard TD against USC in the Rose Bowl, which is perhaps the greatest run in PSU history.

What did he do in the offseason to get even better?

“I felt like I wanted to focus on getting stronger and getting faster,” he said. “I think I was able to do that this offseason. Our coaching staff and our strength staff did a really good job pushing me.

“I gained weight this year. I’m at 230 now. I feel faster. I ran a faster 40 than I did last year. 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.”

It’s not just Barkley’s special playmaking abilities that make him dangerous. Penn State has a dynamic offense that includes weapons everywhere, so defenses can’t focus entirely on Barkley.

Offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead showed an uncanny ability with his playcalling last year to give Barkley the ball at perfect times when defenses may have started to forget about him.

“As we go through the game planning process, whether it’s Saquon out of the backfield or lined up in the slot sometimes, it’s just a matter of … stretching defenses horizontally or vertically, (and) he’s creating mismatches by number or personnel.”

Barkley has remained a humble young man even with all of the extra attention he’s been receiving this offseason. He was asked if he’s treated like a rock star when he returns home, and while he said that’s not quite the case, he has learned to realize how much people appreciate what’s he’s accomplishing.

The end result on the field is what most people see and judge him by, but as everyone on the Penn State team has mentioned repeatedly, it’s the work Barkley puts in off the field that enables him to excel.

“We have a standard in this program, and we have a standard in the running back room,” running backs coach Charles Huff said. “And Saquon sets the standard.”