The man who coached him for three years has two words for anyone questioning whether Penn State running back Saquon Barkley is worthy of the Browns’ draft picks at Nos. 1 or 4.
Here’s one more: wow.
“Saquon is the first guy I can remember since Bo that doesn’t have a knock,” Charles Huff, the former Penn State running backs coach, told The Chronicle-Telegram in a phone interview Friday. “There’s nothing you can legitimately argue he doesn’t do well.”
Running back has lost value in the draft with the NFL’s increased reliance on passing and a deep talent pool at the position. In order for Barkley, or any back, to be worth a top-five pick, he must be a “generational” player.
That’s the key to the Barkley draft discussion.
Huff has the answer.
“He’s the best running back since Bo Jackson,” said Huff, now the assistant head coach and run game coordinator at Mississippi State.
Jackson’s last season was 1990. Barry Sanders played eight years after that, Emmitt Smith 14.
So Huff isn’t messing around.
“It’s the combination. He’s blessed with it all,” he said.
“And the best players are usually not the greatest or nicest people to be around, there’s something holding them up. He doesn’t have that. He’s been blessed with the total package.”
Dallas drafted Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott with the fourth pick in 2016. Jacksonville took LSU’s Leonard Fournette in the same spot last year.
Assuming the Browns take a quarterback at No. 1 and the Giants pass on Barkley at No. 2, Cleveland would be positioned to make it three straight running backs at No. 4.
“I think he’s better than all those guys,” Huff said of Elliott and Fournette. “They all have unique talents and do a lot of really good things. Saquon is the total package.
“When you start comparing everything, on the field, in the weight room, social things, Saquon checks one or two more things than those guys, guys throughout the league. When I was growing up, Bo Jackson was that guy. There were a lot of great football players in Bo Jackson’s era, but Bo Jackson was just superior in lot of things. He was ‘wow.’ That’s Saquon. He’s doing things on the field with the best of the best that make you say, ‘wow.’”
Huff isn’t alone in his evaluation. Many analysts consider Barkley the draft’s best player.
He’s got a chiseled body at 6-foot, 233 pounds and bench pressed 225 pounds 29 times at the scouting combine. The power is overmatched by the speed and explosion obvious on his game film and reinforced by the combine workout that included a 4.4-second 40-yard dash and 41-inch vertical jump.
Penn State coach James Franklin told Sports Illustrated it’s like “if you had Frankenstein build a running back.”
Barkley was a consensus All-American in 2017, two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year and finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy voting. In three years he rushed for 3,843 yards, a 5.7 average and 43 touchdowns. He added 102 catches for 1,195 yards and eight touchdowns, and two kickoff returns for touchdowns.
He’s at his best — and looks every bit a top-five pick — when he effortlessly bounces outside, sticks his foot in the ground and explodes for a long touchdown in which he runs away from defenders. He shows good vision, can cut on a dime, break a tackle and turn nothing into something, as evidenced by touchdown runs of 81, 79, 57 and 55 yards.
“I’m a versatile player,” Barkley said at the combine. “I think I’ve shown on film that I can run the ball. I can run it between the tackles or outside. I can catch the ball out of the backfield. I can pass block. And I can play special teams.”
As dominant as Barkley was, there were games where he was contained. He failed to rush for 100 yards eight times in 13 games in 2017 and averaged less than 3 yards a carry three times. With defenses focused on stopping him and an offensive line in transition, too many times he was met by an unblocked linebacker.
“If Sam Hubbard is in the backfield when you get the handoff, there’s not much you can do,” Huff said. “If guys are getting knocked back at the line of scrimmage, it makes it tough on a running back.
“We were doing everything we could to help Saquon legitimately have a shot at the Heisman. But at the end of the day the goal is to win. If the defense says run it, you run it. If the defense says throw it, you throw it. He was part of the (run-pass option) system, he wasn’t the team.”
Huff did acknowledge Barkley will have to do a better job in the NFL of taking the short gains and not always looking to hit a home run. He went backward on some runs rather than stick his nose into the line and fight for a few yards.
“When Steph Curry is 1-for 27 behind the arc, no one says he’s shooting too much,” Huff said, referring to the former NBA MVP from Golden State. “I don’t know if you can pull back what makes a player special.
“Our system was more inviting to make a big play. The NFL is more of a downhill game. I know he’ll be able to adjust.”
Browns general manager John Dorsey and coach Hue Jackson have praised Barkley and haven’t ruled him out publicly, but it seems unlikely they will use a top-five pick when the draft is loaded in starting-caliber running backs. If they reverse field and take Barkley, a large number of fans would be happy.
Barkley reportedly wasn’t one of the Browns’ 30 predraft visits, but Huff said he’s such a known commodity and clean prospect no further research was necessary. He added the Browns have talked to Barkley’s representation.
“He’s an unbelievable player obviously, but he’s a better person,” Huff said. “He’s the type of person that when you’re around him, he inspires or challenges you to be at your best. Just because he’s at his best.
“When people finally meet Saquon, they’re blown away. It’s something that’s true and genuine.”
Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7253 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Like him on Facebook and follow him @scottpetrak on Twitter.