2018 Penn State Season Preview: Running Backs

By Matt de Bear on August 14, 2018 at 8:30 am
Miles Sanders is ready to break out in 2018.
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In case you have been living in a cave since January, Saquon Barkley is no longer with the Nittany Lions. He is now plying his trade in the NFL with the New York Giants. He leaves behind a rewritten record book, a legend that is only just starting to grow, and a bevy of highlights that will be shown for decades. But time will not wait as Penn State looks to move on in life after Saquon.

Last year

Of the 279 carries in 2017 that went to a running back, Barkley handled nearly 78 percent (217) of them. He was of course a focal point of the passing game as well, where he hauled in 54 passes. While the workload was significant, it's hard to argue with getting the ball in the hands of the most talented skill player in the country as often as possible. 

When Barkley did take a breath on the sideline, it was former five-star prospect Miles Sanders who saw the most action. In limited action, Sanders put up 191 yards and two touchdowns on just 31 carries, and 30 more yards on six receptions. Mark Allen and Andre Robinson were the only other scholarship backs to see action, with each carrying the ball nine times.

The Starter

No. 24 Miles Sanders, (Jr./Jr., 5'11, 207 lbs.)

You never want to be the guy to follow the guy, but Sanders certainly has portrayed the right mindset going into the season. With as many times as he's been asked about replacing Barkley, the chip on his shoulder is likely the size of Beaver Stadium at this point.

Sanders is not Barkley, but he will not have to be either. Coming out of high school, his vision and acceleration were arguably his best attributes, and in 56 carries as a Nittany Lion, he has shown flashes of those abilities. Given the sporadic usage, however, he will certainly benefit from more regular game touches. His top end speed is not where Barkley's is, but he is plenty fast enough, and certainly quick enough to make a man or two miss in the open field. He is a better receiver than his mere eight career receptions would suggest, as well.

The Backup

No. 8 Mark Allen (Gr./Sr., 5'6, 190 lbs.)

Allen is the lone returning scholarship player with game experience from a year ago with Robinson transferring to Delaware. After redshirting in 2014, he has carried 66 times for 254 yards and a pair of touchdowns. However, 55 of those came in his first two years as carries dried up in 2017 behind Barkley.

He is not as flashy as Barkley and certainly does not possess the pedigree of the blue-chip Sanders, but the best compliment you can give Allen is he does a lot of things very well. He will take what the play gives him, pick up blitzes, and anything else he's asked to do. There is a reason he has continued to see time despite more heralded options on the roster.

The Reserves

No. 20 Johnathan Thomas (Gr./Sr., 5'11, 221 lbs.)

No. 32 Journey Brown (So./Fr., 5'11, 210 lbs.)

No. 4 Ricky Slade (Fr./Fr., 5'9, 201 lbs.)

Finally healthy, the time is now for the fifth-year senior Thomas. His size and bruising running style are his biggest assets, and something no other back on the roster can bring to the table. If he can stay healthy, there is a role for him in a crowded depth chart.

Speaking of bringing something to the table no one else can, redshirt freshman Brown has the kind of blazing speed that makes him dangerous anytime he touches the ball. With only so many carries to go around, he might see his biggest impact on kick returns.

Slade is the latest blue-chip back to find his way to Happy Valley and has the kind of electrifying ability in the open field that figures to get him involved early. At just 201 lbs., it's not likely he's ready to play every down, but there is certainly an opportunity for him to make an impact as a true freshman.

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