Penn State's Saquon Barkley lifts himself to the top

Penn State's Saquon Barkley lifts himself to the top

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Saquon Barkley bobs his head to Drake's "Started at the Bottom" as he stands over a barbell loaded to 380 pounds.

The Penn State running back takes a step back and adjusts his shorts before bending down and taking a firm grip on the bar with both hands. With his chin up, back flat and knees bent, Barkley tugs on the gray steel, searching for just the right amount of tension in his arms.

Up it goes.

Barkley uncoils, and then quickly dips under the weight and back into squat, slipping the bar under his chin and onto his deltoids. His quads bulging, Barkley stands up straight to complete the power clean. He drops the bar to the mat, takes a couple breaths and repeats the feat twice more with relative ease.

A case can be made that Barkley is both the best and strongest running back in college football. To Barkley, he could not be the former without also being the latter. The broken tackles. The razor-sharp cuts that leave linebackers limp. The hurdles over and sprints past defensive backs. Everything Barkley does to send 100,000 Nittany Lions fans into a frenzy at Beaver Stadium can be traced back to the hours he has spent in the weight room, turning his body into a 228-pound NFL prototype.

"I'm a firm believer that the work you put in in the weight room translates to the field," Barkley said. "Some people don't really think it correlates. A lot of people think you have to do football specific stuff and that's true. But I think football is a direct correlation with weightlifting. I think the stuff that you do -- the explosive movements, the leg strength -- helps you finish plays. Helps you break tackles."

Coming off a sophomore season in which he ran for 1,496 yards, scored 22 touchdowns and helped the Nittany Lions finish in the top 10 for the first time since 2009, Barkley was overwhelmingly selected to the AP's preseason All-America team released Tuesday.

Barkley's passion for pumping iron was cultivated in a cement basement with no air conditioning beneath the fieldhouse of his eastern Pennsylvania high school. Whitehall was the smallest school in the state's highest classification when Barkley was there.

Going back to the days when former NFL linebacker and Penn State star Matt Millen played at Whitehall, the Zephyrs have tried to make up the difference in the weight room.

"We were going against bigger schools and teams that had more players and had more opportunities to pick from players so we knew for us to win games we had to push ourselves," Barkley said.

Barkley did not walk into Whitehall as a star. He wasn't one of those kids who flashed NFL potential while dominating youth leagues the way Leonard Fournette did before becoming an All-American at LSU and a first-round draft pick by Jacksonville. Barkley was a talented 160-pounder trying to contribute on both sides of the ball during his first two seasons at Whitehall. After his sophomore season, coach Brian Gilbert challenged Barkley to become a leader in the weight room.

Barkley accepted.

"We finish the weight room, typically guys they come in, they break down, they go home. His offseason going into his junior year, he would say `Who wants to stay after?'" Gilbert said. '"Coach how long you going to stay after?' And they just kept doing workouts after our workouts. And they would go out to the field and do footwork drills. And that would turn into, `Hey, who wants to come in Saturday? Who wants to come in Sunday?'"

Barkley gained 30 pounds and had a breakthrough junior season. It only made him want to do more and it wasn't just the physical gains that changed Barkley's game.

"His confidence level went up because of his strength," Gilbert said.

Barkley went from a hidden-gem who was committed to Rutgers after an early offer to one of the top recruits in Pennsylvania, with Penn State making him a priority. Still, Barkley was listed as only the 14th-best running back in the 2015 recruiting class, according to 247Sports' composite rankings.

On the walls of Penn State's climate-controlled, 13,000-square foot weight room, high above the equipment, hangs the Nittany Lions' scoreboard: Player rankings by position and team-wide of various lifts and speed and agility drills going back to 2013.

Barkley's name is on top of all eight categories on the running back chart. He wants to be top three in each category for all players. On a late spring day, he held the No. 1 spot in half the categories, including a 390-pound power clean. His 600-pound squat ranked third behind only a couple of former Penn State linemen.

"To be able to do that and then go out and run a 4.33 (40-yard dash), that's where it gets like, OK, is this guy from Krypton or is this guy from America?" Penn State strength and conditioning coach Dwight Galt said.

Penn State tight end Mike Gesicki had recently knocked Barkley off the broad-jump board with a leap of 10 feet, 11 inches.

"I haven't got over that," Barkley said.

Still, Barkley was feeling pretty good about eventually passing the 445-pound bench press of Austin Johnson, now a 315-pound nose tackle for the Tennessee Titans. Barkley's lifting partner, fellow running back Andre Robinson, said trying to keep up with Barkley is great motivation, even if a little frustrating at times.

Robinson said thought he had a chance to beat Barkley this year on the bench, where Penn State players do as many repetitions of 225 pounds as possible.

"I beat him a couple of weeks, I'd do like one or two reps more than him. And then the last week of spring ball we tested and he did like six more than me out of the blue. Out of nowhere after I'd been doing just as many as him every week," Robinson said. "It's just crazy how he can turn the switch on and get things done."

This all bodes well not just for No. 6 Penn State's season, but for Barkley's NFL draft status as elite running backs are finding themselves valued more of late. Dallas took Ezekiel Elliott fourth overall in 2016. This April, Fournette went No. 4 and Stanford's Christian McCaffrey was picked eighth.

Barkley might be an even better prospect.

"The freakish numbers that he puts up in the weight room, all of that shows up on the field," Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead said. "There's not a disconnect between how he tests in the weight room and what that performance is and how he applies it on the field."

Back in June, Galt and Penn State coach James Franklin had decided that Barkley's one-rep power clean max of 390 pounds was good enough. There was no need to let him to do more even though he probably could. Barkley seemed cool with that.

"We're football players, we're not power lifters," he said.

Two weeks later, Barkley did 405.

Garner and Carr lead Penn State to 3rd straight win

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Garner and Carr lead Penn State to 3rd straight win

BOX SCORE

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Shep Garner scored 16 points and Tony Carr had 15 points to lead Penn State to a 74-52 victory over Illinois on Sunday night.

Illinois missed its first nine second-half shots and didn't score for seven-plus minutes as Penn State went on a 12-0 run to make it 49-36. The Nittany Lions (18-9, 8-6 Big Ten) led by at least nine points the rest of the way.

Carr hit three 3-pointers, grabbed six rebounds and had six assists. Lamar Stevens finished with 11 points, while Mike Watkins and Josh Reaves scored 10 apiece, for Penn State.

Illinois had the lead for more than 15 minutes in the first half, but squandered it late. Carr air balled a 3-pointer from the right wing, but Jamari Wheeler grabbed the offensive rebound and kicked it out to Garner, who nailed a corner 3.

On the ensuing play, Mark Alstork stepped on the baseline while inbounding the ball, giving Penn State possession with 3.6 seconds left. Carr scored a layup before the buzzer to take a one-point lead into the break.

The Nittany Lions shot 54.5 percent from the field, outscored Illinois 34-12 in the paint and won their fourth consecutive game against the Illini. Penn State has won six of its last seven overall.

Leron Black led Illinois (12-14, 2-11) with 18 points.

Big Picture
After finishing three games below .500 last season, the Nittany Lions continued their impressive turnaround this year. With a strong finish in conference play, Penn State could make its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2011.

After scoring career-high 32-points in a 78-69 loss to Wisconsin on Thursday, Trent Frazier was held to just six against Penn State. He has been Illinois' best player in conference play, and without a strong performance from him the Illini struggled.

Up Next
The Illini will face Indiana on the Wednesday night. Illinois knocked off the Hoosiers on Jan. 24 for its first Big Ten victory of the season.

Penn State returns home to face No. 14 Ohio State. The Buckeyes sit atop the Big Ten after a one-point win over No. 3 Purdue last week.

Lamar Stevens fires darts in Penn State victory

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Lamar Stevens fires darts in Penn State victory

BOX SCORE

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Lamar Stevens feels like he's playing his most consistent basketball right now, a bad omen for upcoming opponents considering Penn State expects its hybrid forward to do a little bit of everything.

Just like he did on Wednesday.

Stevens scored 25 points on 10-of-12 shooting with 14 in the second half to lift Penn State over Maryland 74-70.

"Lamar really stepped up for us," Penn State coach Patrick Chambers said. "We needed every one of those points that he had tonight."

Tony Carr added 16 points, Josh Reaves scored 14, and Mike Watkins added 11 for the Nittany Lions (17-9, 7-6 Big Ten Conference), who equaled their previous best mark for conference victories under Chambers.

"The best teams always find ways to win," Stevens said. "We locked down when we had to, got huge stops, huge rebounds and I think that's a huge step for this team."

With Maryland (16-10, 5-8) up 20-14 midway through the first half, Stevens nailed his first of two 3-pointers to spark a quick 9-0 run that helped Penn State take control.

He rolled layups off his fingers and sank midrange jumpers on multiple back-to-back possessions in the second half, where he scored 11 of his team's first 20 points.

"He made some incredible, incredible shots," Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said. "He was terrific, he was so efficient."

Stevens added four rebounds, two assists and was 3-for-4 on free throws with all three makes coming in the final 5:48 as Maryland threatened.

Anthony Cowan Jr. led Maryland with 15 points while Kevin Huerter and Bruno Fernando added 13 apiece.

Darryl Morsell had 10 points for the Terrapins, who cut a 10-point deficit with 8:11 to play to just three with 1:13 left.

"I didn't think we competed in the first half defensively," Turgeon said. "I thought in the second half, we were really trying hard."

Big picture
Maryland: The Terrapins' disappointing season continues and they have dropped to 7-7 since stalwart forward Justin Jackson's season was ended by a torn shoulder ligament in late December. Although they shot better than their season average, the Terrapins were badly outplayed in the paint, getting outscored 32-22 and outrebounded 27-23.

Penn State: The Nittany Lions are playing an exciting brand of basketball as of late. They have a combined 22 dunks over their last three home games and opponents are finding it hard to play fast against a team that thrives on speed.

Well-guarded
While Stevens led the offense, guards Reaves, Shep Garner and Jamari Wheeler helped keep Cowan Jr. and Huerter from doing major damage.

The Terrapin duo entered the Bryce Jordan Center averaging a combined 30 points per game. And while they got close with 28, they combined for six of their team's 14 turnovers as Penn State dialed up the pressure.

"They really pressured us," Turgeon said. "I thought (Reaves and Wheeler) had a lot to do with it."

Speedy D
Stevens called Reaves the "heart and soul" of the team and there's no question Penn State looks like a different squad with the stingy, opportunistic defender in the lineup.

Penn State is 4-1 since his return from an academic-related suspension.

"He's going to defend and rebound," Chambers said. "He'll guard the best player on the other team, and when he has opportunities to score and make plays, which he usually does, he's that guy that does it for us."

Reaves led the team with nine rebounds with six in the defensive end.

While Penn State has leaned on Reaves since his return, his presence hasn't prevented Chambers from keeping the speedy Wheeler in the rotation. Wheeler played 11 minutes and chipped in three assists.

Up next
Maryland hosts Northwestern on Saturday.

Penn State visits Illinois on Sunday.