Saquon Barkley is the best -- and most elusive -- RB in the Big Ten
With the year of the running back in college football set to begin, there’s a name from the Big Ten that deserves a closer look — Penn State’s Saquon Barkely. Arguably one of the toughest guys in the nation to bring down out of the backfield, Barkley led all running backs last season with an elusive rating of 126.7. He’ll return for his true sophomore season poised to make a splash in the conference — let’s examine exactly what makes him a standout:
Most elusive back in the country
In 2015, Saquon Barkley fought through injuries and missed time as he played just 474 snaps on the entire season. However, he clearly made the most of those snaps through his production.
One of PFF’s metrics developed to quantify running back performance was the elusive rating — measuring the impact of the runner independent of the blocking in front of him by how hard he was to bring down. No player in the nation was more elusive than Saquon Barkley in 2015. At 126.7, Barkley forcing 60 missed tackles on rushes and adding another seven in the receiving game. All of this resulted from just 182 touches. His 3.82 yards after contact ranked sixth for returning running backs. It is evident that he was creating yards on his own last year.
More impressively, Barkley managed to accomplish all of this behind a much maligned Penn State offensive line.The Nittany Lions’ O-line ranked 87th out of 128 in PFF’s cumulative run block grading; just one PSU offensive lineman had a notably positive run blocking grade.
More playing time on the horizon
Barkley graded out negatively only twice in 2015. As a pure runner, he did not have a negative grade in a game all season. The Nittany Lion was the third-highest-graded running back in the Big Ten and second-highest among those draft eligible in 2019, behind only fellow true freshman and Washington standout Myles Gaskin.
Another metric PFF has instituted is breakaway percentage, or percentage of yards on 15+ yard runs. Again, Saquon Barkley was in the top 10 at 53.2 percent — in fact, 21 of his runs and 576 of his 1082 yards came on such plays.
His talent to create on his own is unrivaled to any returning player on Penn State. As a running back the goal is not always to generate big plays, but just to move the chains. Barkley has shown he has this big-play ability that not all players at the position possess.
This season Barkley will share the backfield with Mark Allen, Jonathan Thomas, Andre Robinson, and No. 1 running back recruit Miles Sanders.
While Barkley may be the best pure runner on the team, Mark Allen should see more third-downs and passing situations fitting his skill set. Barkley looks to be in more on early downs, although he played a relatively even number of run and pass snaps last season.
The wildcard here is freshman Miles Sanders, whose role is not yet known. Regardless, Barkley’s proven production will keep him on the field as much as possible. He should expect to see the large majority of touches among running backs on the team.
Barkley in a new offense
This offseason, head coach James Franklin replaced old offensive coordinator John Donovan with now former Fordham head coach, Joe Moorhead. Moorhead will run a spread offense with a lot of inside zone run concepts. It’s an offense that dominated the FCS, placing Fordham at the top of many offensive categories and lead to three consecutive FCS playoff appearances (2013-2015).
Barkley finished his freshman season with the best overall and pure rushing grade for returning running backs in the conference. Despite several players seeing significantly more snaps, he also out-performed them on a snap-for-snap basis. If what Saquon Barkley showed in 2015 was any indication of what he is capable of, a 15-20 touches-per-game workload should push him into the upper echelons of production for running backs in the FBS this season.
Despite not playing for a conference favorite, Barkley is primed to add to his young resume and show the nation that he is the best running back in the B1G.