It’s Fine That Saquon Barkley Is Returning Kickoffs, Really

By Len Damico on September 13, 2017 at 8:25 am
Sep 9, 2017; University Park, PA, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions running back Saquon Barkley (26) runs with the ball while returning a kick-off against the Pittsburgh Panthers during the fourth quarter at Beaver Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

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More than a few eyebrows were raised two weeks ago when Saquon Barkley stepped onto the field to return Akron’s first kickoff of the afternoon with Penn State already up 35-0.

Barkley took that kick back 20 yards, and brought two more kicks back against Pitt. The more conservative Penn State fans among us were left wondering, “what gives?”

Coach James Franklin answered that question yesterday:

“Saquon Barkley has been the starting kick returner since camp. I didn’t want that on the depth chart because I didn’t want people scheming to kick it away from him."

Well, then. But is it wise for Penn State to use their all-everything back to return kicks? In a word: Yes.

He’s got all the skills you’d look for in an elite kick returner

Think back to many of Barkley’s long runs last year. 81 yards against Purdue. 57 yards agains Iowa. 79 yards agains USC. Barkley’s got the elusiveness to make the first guy miss, the power to break a tackle, should a defender get a hand on him, and the speed to leave would-be pursuers in the dust. 

No one else has proven they deserve the job more

Read Franklin’s quote above. “Saquon Barkley has been the starting kick returner since camp.” This isn’t a rash decision. Plenty of players, including Miles Sanders, Nick Scott, and Brandon Polk, had an opportunity in spring ball and/or fall camp to prove that Barkley wasn’t needed on special teams. They didn’t, so here we are.

The Happy Valley Heisman

The university has officially submitted Barkley’s name to Heisman voters with their “For Your Consideration…” website and the #HappyValleyHeisman hashtag. We’re not used to such promotions around these parts, of course, but welcome to college football in 2017.

Like it or not, it’s a real thing. So if you're going to put together a marketing campaign for a player's Heisman campaign, you're going to give that player every chance he can get to leverage that campaign. As we’ve discussed, the Heisman has become a quarterback’s award, so a running back would have to be more than just a running back to have a serious shot at the award. And a few kick return touchdowns on the Heisman mixtape never hurt.

Christian McCaffrey’s path to New York in 2015 was undoubtably paved by over a thousand kick return yards and a kick return touchdown. Barkley himself has cited McCaffrey’s game as an inspiration.

Every Play MAtters

Look, the threat of getting injured on a kick return is real. Then again, the risk of getting hurt on any play is real. Football is a violent game, and the moment you start playing (and coaching) to not get hurt is the moment you’ve lost. Sending Barkley out to return kicks tells everyone on the team that no job is unimportant, and that every play matters.

It fits right in line with Franklin’s ethos. “1-0 this week” means there’s no other game but the one you’re preparing for right now, and no other play than the next one.


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