Penn State's arguably strongest position group is loaded up for a huge 2016, led by the Nittany Lions' best Heisman candidate in some time.
2015 brought us the emergence of phenom running back Saquon Barkley. The former 4-star recruit out of Whitehall (Pa.) rushed for a Penn State freshman record 1,076 yards, passing D.J. Dozier (1,002 yards). Simply put, he was a revelation for an offense that often struggled to move the ball otherwise, despite playing behind an offensive line that allowed him to be dropped behind the line of scrimmage a ridiculous 25% of the time.
Barkley wasn't the only back to contribute in 2015, however, as he wasn't even the starter for the week one clash with Temple. Although an injury would go on to consume most of his season, Akeel Lynch averaged 5.1 yards per carry over 55 carries. The Lions also depended on redshirt freshmen Nick Scott and Mark Allen on more than a few occasions, and the two performed admirably when called upon.
|#26 Saquon Barkley||SO||5'11/223||1,237 total yards, 8 TD|
|#8 Mark Allen||rSO||5'6/181||142 total yards, 2 TD|
|#6 Andre Robinson||rFR||5'9/212||Redshirt year|
|#24 Miles Sanders||FR||5'11/195||No stats|
|#40 Nick Eury||FR (walk-on)||5'9/213||No stats|
|#32 Irvine Paye||rJR (walk-on)||5'6/168||No stats|
While the running back unit loses a few pieces, two new faces have been added to the mix for 2016 who could truly make a difference on the field. Few remember how good Andre Robinson was as a high school running back, as he was ranked inside the top-3 players in Pennsylvania's loaded 2014 class prior to a nasty knee injury during his senior season. Robinson runs as if he's a bowling ball on fire, constantly bouncing off of would be tacklers and overpowering defenders in his way. His running style is very similar to that of former Ohio State star Ezekiel Elliott, and while it's high praise to compare a redshirt freshman yet to see the field to the fourth overall pick in the NFL Draft, in terms of running style, it's a fair comparison.
The other name that will be added to the mix this season is freshman phenom Miles Sanders. Sanders was ranked by the 247Sports Composite as the no. 1 running back in the country, and the no. 20 player overall. Needless to say, he's an explosive athlete. Sanders has all the tools necessary to play on day one, but the staff will likely ease him in early on to help get him acquitted to the college game. However, don't be surprised to see the Nittany Lions giving Sanders some important carries by the end of the year, and hopefully deploying him alongside Barkley in two-back sets.
Oh Akeel Lynch, we really hardly knew ye. 2015 was supposed to finally be the year that Penn State fans truly saw what Lynch could do as the feature back. And things started off well for him! He even finished the season with a strong 5.1 yards per carry. Unfortunately for Lynch, a poor showing against Buffalo opened the door for the electric Saquon Barkley to earn more snaps, and a poorly-timed injury against San Diego State entrenched the freshman as the starter moving forward. Lynch's Penn State contributions may not have made a huge statistical dent, but we'll remember Big Maple fondly nonetheless, and we're hoping for big things out of him over in Nevada.
Nick Scott is the other name that moves on for 2016, but unlike Lynch, Scott is simply moving to defensive back. Based on the athleticism, speed and football IQ he demonstrated in 2015, he'll be an asset on that side of the ball.
Barkley, Barkley and more Barkley. We'll certainly see carries from Mark Allen, Miles Sanders and Andre Robinson, but Barkley is the indisputable leader of the group. With a full season's worth of carries (remember, Barkley only appeared in 9 regular season games, and one of those was a single carry performance at Temple), Barkley has the chance to make good on his already skyrocketing reputation.
All three scholarship backups will see time in 2016, as Robinson has been raring to go for some time now, Allen has already proven that his size doesn't hold him back on the field and Sanders is simply too talented to redshirt. From the sound of it, Allen has a strong hold on the primary backup spot as of right now, but don't be surprised to see Robinson or Sanders push him for that role as quickly as the second week of camp. That's not a knock on Allen, who absolutely has a place in this offense thanks to his outstanding pass blocking abilities and hands out of the backfield, but the other two backs have the chance to be special, as well. Simply put, Penn State is as loaded with running backs as they've been in some time.
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