Josh MoyerESPN Staff Writer
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Saquon Barkley smiled politely at the comparisons — how he’s patient like former All-American Curt Warner and eats up yards like Penn State great Larry Johnson — because he has heard them all before.
He knows Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott called him “the truth.” He’s aware Michigan State defensive tackle Malik McDowell said he was better than Heisman winnerDerrick Henry. He’s just trying to ignore those early labels; he wants to stay humble.
“I’m honored to be compared to some great running backs, but I try to block that out and be myself,” Barkley said Wednesday, his first time speaking with the media. “Just try to be a better player every day, to be honest.”
Hype has trailed Barkley like highlights have followed his runs. Pro Football Focus ranked him as one of the 10 best running backs in the nation for much of 2015, despite the fact he was just a few months removed from high school. And Barkley managed to turn in Penn State’s fastest 40-yard dash time of the spring (4.38 seconds). He also tied a school record by power-cleaning 390 pounds.
That’s not even the half of Barkley’s eyebrow-raising achievements. He also set the Nittany Lions’ freshman rushing record last season (1,076 yards) despite playing behind one of the Big Ten’s worst offensive lines. And, when he wasn’t contacted behind the line of scrimmage, he averaged an astounding 8.3 yards a carry. But it’s something else altogether that has most impressed his teammates.
“I think it’s how he’s handled all the hype around him,” defensive tackle Antoine White said. “He’s so poised at practice and so mature. I didn’t even look at him as a freshman tailback last year. He’s already one of the leaders of the team.”
During the 15 minutes of Wednesday practice open to the media, Barkley — who sported a wrap on his ankle — touched the ball just twice but, in Barkley-like fashion, impressed both times. On a short crossing route, Barkley caught the ball and sprinted upfield so quickly that it looked as if the defense was playing in slow motion. During his only run, Barkley avoided a tackle in the backfield by stepping back and then cutting inside for a crucial first down. The defensive sideline just groaned.
“He’s pretty rare, pretty special,” coach James Franklin said. “I haven’t been around too many guys like him.”
But Barkley didn’t focus on his performance during his first public interview; it seemed like he was still surprised at all the buzz surrounding him. He never expected to be the talk of Happy Valley, after all. He just wanted to play — not start, play — as a true freshman.
He recalled with a smile sitting in Penn State’s recruiting lounge a year ago, watching the annual scrimmage, and dreaming about carrying the ball on that field. Against Rutgers last season, he said, he thought back to that moment. (He rushed for 195 yards and two TDs against the Scarlet Knights.) He smiled again.
“That was amazing,” Barkley added. “That was a blessing.”
Barkley reiterated Wednesday that he’s just a normal guy — “I play video games; I watch Netflix” — and he’s still growing accustomed to his newfound fame. He was surprised when he discovered one fan snapped video of him riding a hoverboard and posted it to Instagram. “A little creepy … but it was funny,” Barkley mused.
“Normal” or not, Barkley has generated a lot of hype these last eight months. And, for now, he seems to be the only one not buying into it. He’s not trying to be Warner or Johnson — just Barkley.
And, right now, that’s just who this Penn State offense needs.