It was apparent very early in preseason practice that Penn State freshman Saquon Barkley was the kind of running back he showed himself to be Saturday night against Rutgers.
Like the first time the pads came out, Nittany Lions guard Brian Gaia said, on perhaps the third day of drills.
“First day of pads, there were a couple jump cuts he had, you knew this kid was going to be special,” Gaia said. “You just knew the way he could run, and his moves and his quickness and speed, that he was going to be a special kid.”
That impression was reinforced by Barkley’s 21-carry, 195-yard, two-touchdown tour de force (off the bench, mind you) in the Lions’ 28-3 victory over the Scarlet Knights.
His outing in the second half of the previous week’s victory over Buffalo (115 yards on 12 tries) had been one thing, in that it came against an overmatched, worn-down opponent.
This was something else again, and everybody realized it.
“Saquon Barkley,” coach James Franklin said, “has brought something to our offense.”
Like an ability to make guys miss. To run through tackles. To turn four-yard runs into 40-yarders.
“Offensive line, tight end(s) and coaches are going to try to get the running back into the position to be one-on-one (with a defender),” Franklin said, “and the running back must win more than 50 percent of those one-on-one situations. And he’s been able to do that.”
Barkley, who was not permitted to speak with reporters per team policy, scored on runs of 15 and 16 yards and ripped off a 54-yard gain as well.
His was the biggest day for a Penn State back since Bill Belton had 201 yards against Illinois in 2013. Barkley and starter Akeel Lynch (10-120, 1 TD) also became the first Lions tandem to surpass 100 yards in the same game since Evan Royster and Silas Redd did it against Northwestern in 2010.
In all the Lions ran 41 times for 330 yards, their biggest rushing day against a Big Ten opponent since they gained 338 yards against Illinois in 2009. They have also surpassed 200 yards on the ground in consecutive weeks for the first time since that ’09 season.
And Lynch, it should be pointed out, broke off a 75-yard scoring run.
“Akeel’s like the muscle, and Saquon’s like the lightning,” Gaia said. “It’s cool to see.”
But for different circumstances, Barkley might have been on the opposite sideline Saturday. He committed to RU in the fall 2013, during his junior year at Whitehall High School, in the Lehigh Valley.
On National Signing Day the following February – i.e., the signing day before his own signing day -- he received a phone call from Franklin, then just weeks into his tenure as the Lions’ coach.
As Barkley once told The (Allentown) Morning Call, “He told me that I'm coming to Penn State, that he's not taking no for an answer. He said that I'm staying in Pennsylvania, playing for my home state and that I'm going to help Penn State take over college football.
“That was a cool experience. It meant a lot to me. It made me feel important, that they actually want me and think I could be something big in the future and help the team win football games.”
When asked about the particulars of Barkley’s recruitment after Saturday’s game, Franklin said he recalled that the younger man was committed “to another school” but added that Barkley and guys like injured tight end Adam Breneman (Cedar Cliff High School) are “great examples of why if you have the chance to stay home and play for your state school, why wouldn’t you?”
Franklin added that he and his staff did the necessary legwork, then got Barkley on campus for a visit. And once that happened, the coach said, “Penn State sells Penn State.”
“We’re happy he’s with us,” Franklin added, “and we’re going to continue to do that, develop the guys we have on our roster and continue to recruit hard in this footprint.”
Certainly Barkley’s fingerprints were all over Saturday’s game. Never mind that PSU was starting its third offensive-line combination in as many games, with Andrew Nelson — the right tackle in Week One, the left tackle in Week Two — sidelined with an injured left knee.
There was continuity, at least, in the fact that this week’s quintet — left tackle Paris Palmer, left guard Derek Dowrey, center Angelo Mangiro, right guard Gaia and right tackle Brendan Mahon — lined up that way in the second half of the Buffalo game, after Nelson went down.
But nobody could have pictured production like this. Not the way the line struggled last year and in the opener against Temple, a 10-sack disaster.
There was at least some indication, though, that guys have settled into roles, and that the Lions now have a better idea of how they want to attack opponents.
Mahon, for instance, played tackle in high school, but until two weeks ago had played nothing but guard since arriving in Happy Valley.
“Whatever the team needed me to do, I was up for the challenge,” he said. “I’m just going to bring it every day I can, and the rest is history.”
Certainly it helps him and the other linemen that the Lions committed to a straight-ahead running attack from the jump on Saturday.
“We love it,” Mahon said. “The run game, when it’s coming strong, we all get really excited to just come off the ball and do what we do best. That’s an offensive lineman’s dream, to kind of pin your ears back and get after guys.”
As Gaia said, “Everyone likes run blocking more than pass blocking. You’re the aggressor.”
So effective was the running game that Christian Hackenberg put it up only 19 times, completing 10 for 141 yards. And for the second straight week, he was not sacked.
They will no doubt face better defenses than Rutgers’. There are no doubt greater challenges ahead. But Barkley’s emergence gives some indication that they are better equipped to handle whatever comes their way.
“The kid, ever since he got here, has been putting the effort in,” Mahon said. “That’s what we need from guys. Talent only takes you so far. The thing with Saquon — and Akeel, too — they’re both coming every day, ready to work and talk to us. They really boost us, and we kind of feed off each other.”
That led to a feeding frenzy on Saturday. And that’s not something that everyone might have predicted.