Having seen five of his own players taken in the first-round of the 2016 NFL Draft, Ohio State coach Urban Meyer clearly has a good feel for who projects as a high draft pick.
So people took notice earlier this week, when during a press conference Meyer referred to Penn State sophomore Saquon Barkley as “their first-rounder tailback.” One person who heard the compliment was Barkley, whose 4-2 Nittany Lions play host to the 6-0 and second-ranked Buckeyes at Beaver Stadium Saturday night.
“It’s pretty interesting” Barkley said. “It’s cool to hear (that from) coaches such as Urban Meyer (given) the success he’s had in college football. It means a lot that coaches are taking notice of you.”
Of course, Meyer has had good reason to take notice of Barkley, the second-year standout who won’t be eligible for the NFL Draft until 2018. He emerged as Penn State’s top offensive weapon last season when he shredded the Ohio State defense for 194 yards in Columbus. He was the Nittany Lions’ lone bright spot in a 38-10 loss.
So far this season, Penn State has faced one defense after another that has focused primarily on limiting Barkley. Some have stacked the box to try to get it done. Michigan was able to pull it off by unleashing it dominating defensive line on the Lions’ overmatched offensive front.
Barkley fully expects OSU to be zeroing in on him, too.
“You know coming into the game that the game plan is probably gonna be schemed around you,” he said. “But I like that attention because I feel that helps the team out, especially the offense. If you do believe that I’m talented enough to beat you in a game, then you scheme against me, and that just opens up stuff for other guys on our team.”
That mindset has worked well overall for new coordinator Joe Moorhead's offense, the only exception being the 49-10 loss to the Wolverines in Ann Arbor. But even in a tough loss at Pitt, the Lions scored 39 points. Heading into Saturday’s action, they are scoring 30.5 points per game, more than eight points better than their average in 2015.
Barkley leads the team in all-purpose yards with 742. But QB Trace McSorley has passed for 1,436 yards and rushed for 186 more. And four different pass-catchers have at least 200 receiving yards.
“I feel we have a really talented offense and we have a lot of playmakers,” Barkley said. “If you try to take one person away, then someone is gonna step up and make big plays.”
As the showdown with the Buckeyes nears, everyone knows who that one person is. He looks an awful lot like a future first-rounder.