Saquon Barkley is electrifying in pretty much every imaginable way when he puts on his pads and cleats. We've seen him dice up USC's defense like they were playing Pop Warner. We've seen him show his appreciation for the invention of the wheel against Wisconsin. We've seen him break science on ESPN. His physical attributes, awareness and talent probably cannot be accurately recreated in any Madden created player, he is game breaking.
Any time he sets a power clean record, or runs a 4.33 40-yard dash, it's almost like Penn State fans can nod along silently and think, "yea I figured he could do that." This isn't normal, Barkley is the matrix. I don't think anyone has ever thrown a pass to themselves beyond the line of scrimmage and scored a touchdown, but if anyone is going to do it, why not Barkley?
Yea, we get it Rob, Barkley is one of the best players to ever play for Penn State, what's your point? Despite every inkling within me to give the ball to Barkley on every single down until the other team forfeits or we #HangAHundred, I cannot help but feel that using Barkley on kickoff returns has negative consequences for his incredibly valuable offensive contributions. It exposes Barkley to unnecessary injury risk and utilizes him in a way that he is not most effective given his role and other players on this roster.
Kickoffs are inherently dangerous
This is not to say that we should bubblewrap Barkley and only play him when necessary. However, kickoffs are easily the most dangerous play in football. This is not an opinion, this is scientific. Despite Barkley being one of the most talented players in the country, exposing him for an injury risk for the hopes of maybe a few extra yards does not seem like a worthwhile strategy to me. Despite Barkley's superhuman physical tools, he is still a risk to get injured.
Barkley becomes a target on kickoffs, even if teams elect to kick it to Koa Farmer, would someone take an unnecessary and illegal shot at Barkley? I wouldn't rule it out. It is a potentially game changing move if someone goes for it. Perhaps I am not a significant enough of a risk taker, but Barkley's offensive contributions are so significant that any possible advantage that Penn State could gain could be offset by a potential injury.
Penn State with Barkley on offense alone is a playoff contender and could repeat as Big Ten champions. The team is incredibly explosive on that side of the ball. Despite the talent on this team, without Barkley the offense's dynamic and opposing teams' preparation changes substantially. It seems unnecessary to me to waste that on kickoff returns. If Barkley got hurt on offense that is one thing, but if he got hurt on a kickoff, I think Penn State may see if Coach Franklin's extension signed in August is in pencil (just kidding).
Don't waste Barkley's energy for offense
If Barkley is the full time kick returner as Coach Franklin stated he was on Tuesday, then it seems like he will be back there consistently all season. Penn State bolsters one of the best and most explosive offenses in the country. While they are coming off of a tepid performance against Pittsburgh, that does not take away the weapons on this offense.
When clicking, Barkley and the rest of the offense may be containable for a quarter or two, but it is nearly impossible to prevent the big play all game. Does a defense bring an extra linebacker in to contain Barkley but risk single coverage on Juwan Johnson, Mike Gesicki, DeAndre Thompkins and DaeSean Hamilton, or do they stop the plays to the outside and take off an extra linebacker which frees room for Barkley? It's like asking if you would prefer the rock over the hard place. Both sound like they hurt if you get hit by them.
Putting Barkley in for more kickoffs may help opposing defenses contain Barkley. The extra hits could take away the zip and sizzle for a full four-quarter game. While this has not been proven since Barkley has not taken a significant number of kickoffs for a full game, it seems quite reasonable to think it could impact him down the road, when staring at a short yardage situation.
Penn State is not starved for playmakers on special teams
Barkley is a big play threat on any given down or touch. However, it's not like Penn State is starved for special teams playmakers. DeAndre Thompkins has already returned a punt for a touchdown this year, and he has 158 yards accumulated on punt returns. Even taking out the 61-yard return for a touchdown, he still averages over 16 yards per return. Thompkins has returned one kickoff in his Penn State career so far, and maybe it would be worthwhile to give him an opportunity on kickoffs given his success so far this season.
Despite Barkley's unreal talent, I would like to see us use that talent on offense and not subject it to extra risk. He's so valuable that maxing out his touches where he can impact the game most, which in my opinion is on offense, seems like the best use of Barkley. He will still get his touches on offense, and he will find seams and break plays like he has done throughout his Penn State career. He will remain a Heisman Trophy winning candidate, though it would be helpful if Baker Mayfield has no more flags to plant.