STATE COLLEGE — Saquon Barkley’s first career touchdown pass didn’t look as good on replay as he envisioned it would. But it worked, unlike the first time the running back tried to throw one.
“You can tell, I can’t throw the ball at all,” Barkley said of his fourth-quarter jump-lob last week. “I was completely nervous because you can ask my teammates, that play didn’t go too well in practice.”
In practice, Barkley’s release was bad and the ball stuck in his palm on the follow-through. It went straight into the ground, drawing groans, laughs and — as Barkley put it — politically incorrect ribbing from teammates.
But it didn’t stop offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead from turning right back to it in a playbook that’s loaded with ways to unleash No. 26. After all, most of them work thanks to the 5-foot-11, 230-pound back’s frenetic ability to spin, juke or leap over or through defenders seemingly at will.
“I don’t think that anything the kid does can surprise you anymore,” Moorhead said. “I think the Iowa game was a microcosm of the kid’s skillset: 350-plus all-purpose yards, he did it on the ground, did it catching the ball, did a very good job in pass protection. I don’t get to see every player in the country on a weekly basis but if there’s a better one, I’d be hard pressed to believe it.”
Moorhead has tried a lot — swing passes, shovel passes, dump-offs and laterals just in the last game — to get his star more action. Most of it has worked.
Barkley leads all FBS players with 243.6 all-purpose yards per game through five games and averages a first down per play. He’s scored rushing, receiving and return touchdowns and only four players have more touches than his 121, 23 more than he had at this point last season.
His rushing responsibilities haven’t changed, however. Barkley’s 86 carries equal what he had at this point last year. But as defensive coordinators have pledged to limit Barkley’s running room, Moorhead has opted to utilize his best player’s receiving skills. Barkley has responded as the team’s leading receiver so far with 386 yards on 27 catches.
He’s excelled in all other areas, too.
Moorhead notes Barkley’s prowess in pass protection — like his block of blitzing Josey Jewel that gave quarterback Trace McSorley time to throw the game-winning touchdown against Iowa — enables him to stay on the field in every passing formation. His 98-yard kickoff return touchdown to open last week’s game was what Franklin envisioned when he and special teams coach Charles Huff penciled him in as the team’s primary kick returner long before camp started.
Franklin was confident his star running back could handle this kind of workload. Strolls through the weight room where he’s seen Barkley increase his workout intensity year after year have reinforced that.
“As a freshman, you get in the weight room and you lift and you run and your body really reacts because you’ve never worked so hard in your life,” Franklin said. “But by the time you get to your third year, you don’t get the same type of results. His body is still reacting, and I think that’s probably the difference with him is even at as high of a level as he was last year, he was still able to take another step.”
That’s shown up for anyone who’s watched Barkley with the goal of game planning against him.
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald has that task next.
“Barkley is maybe the best player that I’ve ever seen on tape,” Fitzgerald said. “I’ve played against some pretty good backs, I’ve coached against some pretty good backs, but he’s just absolutely spectacular. He’s great in the run game, he’s great in protection, catching the ball out of the backfield, he’s a great return man, he does it all and he’s an outstanding football player.”
All of these numbers and highlights have already added up to what Barkley knows is a legitimate shot at the Heisman Trophy. As a user of social media, Barkley said he can’t avoid the hype even though he tries.
“I care about (the Heisman) because I’m a competitor, and I want to be the best,” Barkley said. “I’d love to try and win it, but that’s not my focus. My focus is on the team, my focus is on the game, my focus is on coming out every week and pushing my team to continue to try to be the best possible.”