As if to prove that all discussions of Penn State begin and end with Saquon Barkley, quarterback Trace McSorley was on Wednesday discussing the mindset the No. 6 Nittany Lions carry into their season, which begins when Akron visits Saturday at noon.
“We have an understanding kind of as a team what standard we want to work to every day,” McSorley said.
He admitted he has “a little bit of a perfectionist thing,” but added that that is not uncommon on a team that achieved some of its goals while going 11-3 last year (i.e., a Big Ten championship) but not others (it was denied a spot in the College Football Playoff).
So the Lions are aiming high, striving for something more. And, McSorley said, “a lot of that comes from Saquon.”
In two years in Happy Valley, Barkley has established himself as one of the finest running backs in school history, and one of the finest players in the country. Last year he rushed for 1,496 yards and 18 touchdowns, while also catching 28 passes for 402 yards and four scores.
The capper was a 194-yard rushing performance in a 52-49 Rose Bowl loss to USC. It was highlighted by a 79-yard TD gallop in the third quarter on which Barkley started right, stepped through a tackle, turned the corner, cut back, cut back some more (one Trojan, cornerback Jack Jones, fell on his backside as Barkley did so) and then turned on the jets.
That electric burst jump-started his campaign for this year’s Heisman, but his hard-driving ways appear to be hardwired within the team.
“We want to build off last year,” McSorley said.
The preseason, coach James Franklin said, featured “probably the most consistent training camp that I've been associated with.” He and his assistants have steadily restocked the roster in the years since NCAA sanctions left PSU threadbare following the Jerry Sandusky child molestation scandal. And now the Lions are three-deep everywhere, in players who are either proven or promising.
As a result, McSorley said, “there’s a lot of competition, a lot of guys pushing each other (in practice).”
But again, it all starts with Saquon. While his Trojan tour de force has drawn its share of YouTube attention, so too have his weight-room feats. He goes 5-11 and 230 pounds, but has power-cleaned 405, a program record, and squatted 600. And at the team’s annual Lift for Life workout in mid-July, he bench-pressed 225 pounds 30 times, a number that would have equaled the best mark by a back at last year’s NFL Scouting Combine.
It has reached the point, strength and conditioning coach Dwight Galt said, where he and his staff have to tell Barkley to gear back.
Not his style, though. In July ESPN.com’s Bruce Feldman placed him atop his list of “Feldman’s Freaks,” the sport’s foremost athletes. Earlier, CBSSports.com declared Barkley the nation’s most irreplaceable player, and Sports on Earth decreed he was the top back.
Barkley has also been featured in ESPN the Magazine and SI.com; in the latter piece running backs coach Charles Huff mentioned him in the same breath as Bo Jackson, Ohio State defensive coordinator Luke Fickell mentioned him in the same breath as Ezekiel Elliott and Franklin mentioned him in the same breath as … Frankenstein.
It is widely believed that Barkley, a junior, will declare for the NFL draft after this season — on Media Day in early August, he stiff-armed a question about his intentions as if it were a walk-on cornerback — and not long ago Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller quoted a “high-level” NFL executive as saying that Barkley could be the best running back drafted in the last decade.
But that’s another discussion for another day. Same with the whole Heisman deal.
“To even be mentioned in that category is an honor,” he said back on Media Day. “When that pops up to me, I really don’t get too much of a rush on it because I’m really focused on the season and taking it day by day. And focusing on the team and trying to win every single game possible and just trying to be a better player and a better person and a better leader every single day.”
McSorley has likewise attracted some Heisman attention, after setting school single-season records for passing yardage (3,614), touchdowns (29) and total offense (3,979) in his first year as a starter. He completed TD throws to 10 different receivers, hit 64 attempts of 20 yards or more and has connected for at least one score in each of his last 15 games.
There are eight other starters back on offense. There are, in fact, six offensive linemen in the program with starting experience, and the receiving corps appears to be deep enough to weather the loss of Chris Godwin, who was taken in the third round by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Tight end Mike Gesicki, like Barkley a preseason All-American, is a particular threat.
There are six returnees on defense, the best of whom are middle linebacker Jason Cabinda and safety Marcus Allen. Allen, a senior who has somehow not yet recorded a career interception, made 110 tackles last year to become the first player at his position to lead the team in that category since 2002. Cabinda made 81 stops despite missing five games with a broken thumb.
There are some holes to fill, to be sure. But again, this is a deep team.
Also a driven one.
“If you think what you’re doing now is enough,” McSorley said, “it’s not.”
Thank Barkley for that approach. Among other things.