Welcome to the new era of Penn State football. If part of it reminds you of the old era, you might not be that far off. The possibilities and potential of this backfield has shades of ’94 (Ki-Jana Carter and Mike Archie), and the early 70’s (Lydell Mitchell and Franco Harris), written all over it. With all due respect to the bruiser Zack Zwinack, Bill Belton, or the recently transferred Akeel Lynch, we haven’t had a backfield with this many expectations in quite a few years, and if all goes as planned, this one could very well end up rivaling the best that have ever graced the gridiron. Of course, without ever playing a game together, we’re a long way off from seeing any of that come to fruition.
It all begins and ends with Barkley, who has garnered a large handful of preseason accolades as he enters his sophomore season, including being named a Heisman-contender as previously mentioned. Those of us who pay close attention to training camp might remember the long touchdown run and burst of speed he displayed last August during practice. If you saw it, you knew exactly what we were getting and he did not disappoint. After logging only one carry in the season-opening loss to Temple, Barkley announced his presence to the Nittany Lion-faithful the following week against Buffalo and never looked back. After sitting out of the Army and Indiana games with a minor injury, he announced himself to the entire nation during the primetime showdown with Ohio State. Although the game ended in the second loss of the season, Barkley was unstoppable as he gashed the Buckeyes for 195 yards, not including a long touchdown run that was called back for holding. All told, he finished a fantastic freshman season with 1,076 yards, seven touchdowns, and just under a six-yard average per carry despite missing two full games, the second half of another, and not playing in the first. The Legend of SaSa (his nickname from his days at Whitehall) is officially off and running.
The transfer of Lynch, combined with the position switch by both Nick Scott to safety and Jonathan Thomas to linebacker leaves only one returning back with game experience other than Barkley: the pint sized Mark Allen who has a knack for making tacklers miss and the speed to create open space. Allen scored a touchdown rushing and one receiving in 2015 and should provide a change of pace as well as a threat in the short passing game. His counterparts are both untested but we saw a glimpse of Robinson in April’s Blue-White game as he battled against the first team defense most of the day and scored a nice 28-yard fourth quarter touchdown playing with the first team offense. Robinson broke all of NFL’s LeSean McCoy's records at Bishop McDevitt and was highly sought after before committing to Penn State in the early spring of 2014. A leg injury derailed his senior season but he enters 2016 completely healthy and ready to compete. Miles Sanders was regarded as the No.1 running back in high school last season and has done little to prove that title wrong. When asked about the progress of Sanders since arriving on campus, strength coach Dwight Galt had just a one word answer: Whoa. That should clear up any doubt about the possibility he brings to the table this season.
When you look back at the history of Penn State football, perhaps the first thing that comes to mind is Linebacker U or all of the great defenses. No one can argue with that, but you can’t look back in time without recognizing all the great running backs that have passed through Happy Valley. Names like Moore, Mitchell, Cappelletti, Warner, Thomas, and Carter dot the landscape with many others woven in between. The running game was our bread and butter and it has always served us well and led to plenty of victories. After a few down years, Penn State is ready to re-establish itself as one of the dominate ground attacks in college football. The only real question is how to divvy the carries and keep everyone involved. Led by King ‘Quon and the Four-Headed Monster, I suspect the Nittany Lions come back with a vengeance and then some!