Eagles

Saquon Barkley and Miles Sanders: How bitter rivals became best friends at Penn State

Eagles

Two of the most dynamic young running backs in the NFL will be on display at the Linc Monday night.

One had the third-most yards from scrimmage ever by a rookie last year. The other is now a rookie and actually averaging more yards per touch.

They’re both 22, both from Pennsylvania, both dynamic runners and receivers, and both went to Penn State.

They’re fierce competitors. And they’re best friends.

Saquon Barkley and Miles Sanders won’t be playing against each other Monday night, but you better believe they’ll be measuring themselves against each other.

That's how it's always been.

Barkley arrived at State College in the fall of 2015 and by the time Sanders arrived a year later, Barkley already had a firm grip on the starting running back position.

For two years, Sanders sat and waited.

He didn’t play until last year, when Barkley was with the Giants. But the respect they developed for each other as they competed became the basis of their friendship.

I wasn’t going to allow a five-star recruit to come in and take my job,” Barkley said from East Rutherford, New Jersey, earlier this week. “I knew they obviously envisioned a role for him, so we just competed the whole time but in a friendly way. Even though there was competition to be that starting back, it was always out of love, and I think just the respect we had for each others’ talents is what made our friendship grow so much stronger.

 

Barkley ran for nearly 1,100 yards as a freshman, then 1,500 yards as a soph and nearly 1,300 yards as a junior before declaring for the draft and going to the Giants with the second pick.

Sanders, buried behind Barkley, got just 25 carries as a freshman and 31 as a sophomore.

When he first got to campus, little things like drills we would do, 7-on-7s, his ability to catch the ball, you knew from the get-go he was going to be a tremendous player,” Barkley said. “It didn’t go how he wanted it to go. He probably wanted more reps or more carries while we were there at Penn State. But he was the same guy. He was a hard worker, he didn’t let that impact him. He always had that same work ethic and that same mentality that he wanted to be a lead back in college football one day, and he turned out to be one.

Sanders averaged less than three touches per game as a freshman and sophomore.

Barkley never left the field, and Sanders barely got on it.

Every single day [in college] I’m bringing out the best out of him, he’s bringing the best out of me,” Sanders said. “Drills, team practices, running certain plays, just seeing what he sees and what I see, just seeing the difference, stuff like that. We’d always do stuff after practice too, so it was always me and him, locked in, just trying to get better. … Everything didn’t go how I expected. It just didn’t go my way, but that didn’t change the way I felt about him or anything. Unbelievable player. Everybody knows that, the whole world knows that, nothing but respect for him. The relationship is really good.

Barkley told the story about his last home game in college. This was November of 2017, Penn State vs. Nebraska at Beaver Stadium.

That whole week, I was hurt with a back injury and I remember telling people, ‘I can’t not play, because if I don’t play the world’s going to see what this guy can do already and it’s not my time yet to leave.’ So that was in the back of my mind, finish the season out strong and let him do his thing next year.

Sanders laughs when he's asked about that game. Everybody on the outside thought this would finally be his chance to shine. Sanders knew better.

The whole week, he didn’t practice, he was in the training room the whole week, and everyone’s getting me ready like I’ll be starting. I didn’t tell anybody. I didn’t tell my family, because you never know. We’ve got Superman over there. He gets the start and then he takes one 60 yards (65 yards on the first play of the game). I’m like, ‘His back’s fine.’

With Barkley finally gone last fall, Sanders ran for 1,274 yards, and the Eagles drafted him in the second round.

 

Barkley averaged 22 touches per game as a rookie. Sanders is averaging about 12. So the numbers are difficult to compare. 

One thing is clear. They can both play.

The football world will see that Monday night.

It’s going to be real special,” Sanders said. “I remember talking about this even before the season started, when we were guessing where I would end up. I told him if I’m with the Eagles, we’d get to see each other twice a year. But really at the end of the day I’d be pretty selfish to tell you that I’m focused on Saquon. For real, for real, I’m really just focused on getting a W. We’ve got some stuff to handle. We’ve got to handle business. It’s going to be fun, but I’m mainly focused on something else.

The Giants have lost eight straight games and are playing out the string under head coach Pat Shurmur, the longtime Eagles assistant coach, who will likely be fired after the season.

The Eagles still have a fair chance to win the NFC East, but they’re 5-7 and have lost three straight.

Barkley vs. Sanders will be a fascinating side story to a game between two struggling teams.

I’m not too focused on out-rushing Miles. He’s one of my really good friends, I wish nothing but the best for him, just a healthy game, a healthy rest of the season and rest of his career. My main focus is going out there and trying to help my team win.

- Barkley

We’ve got to win these four games to get into the playoffs, and to be in the playoffs my rookie year would be pretty special, so that’s really all I’m focused on. But it’s definitely going to be fun playing against Saquon, don’t get me wrong.

- Sanders

A quick comparison:

• Sanders is actually averaging more yards per touch so far than Barkley did during his Rookie of the Year season — 5.9 to 5.8.

• Barkley had 911 yards from scrimmage on his first 147 touches. Sanders has 879 yards on his 147 touches.

• Barkley and Sanders rank first and fourth in most total yards by Penn State running backs as rookies. Here’s the all-time top five: Barkley (2,028), Curt Warner (1,774), Franco Harris (1,235), Sanders (879), Blair Thomas (824).

Barkley and Sanders are the only Penn State running backs drafted in the first two rounds since Larry Johnson in 2003, so Monday night’s game will be quite a showcase for a program not known for producing running backs.

When I got there my first year, going 7-6, and now being one of the top programs and having two running backs in the NFL playing on a Monday night from the same school just shows you where we’re going as a program,” Barkley said. “You can see last year’s Rookie of the Year and a guy who’s been playing at that caliber as a rookie this year over there at Philly and you can see where we came from and where it kind of started.

 

Barkley is signed through 2021 and Sanders through 2022, and both will probably be sticking around longer than that.

They’ve been ferocious rivals and the best of friends since they were teenagers, and they’re only getting started.

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