Even with Saquon Barkley ahead of him, Miles Sanders can emerge for Penn State

About 15 months ago, I had a chat with Miles Sanders at a practice days before the Under Armour All-America Game.

At the time, he was one of the top running back recruits in the country. By the end of the week, Sanders moved up in the rankings and became the No. 1 running back recruit in the country. It was obvious that he was the top high school tailback in Orlando.

Sanders was, of course, verbally committed to Penn State. Saquon Barkley had just completed the most productive season ever by a Penn State freshman tailback. With one highlight-reel run after another, he looked every bit like a future All-American. So my question to Sanders was obvious.

“Are you concerned about being stuck behind Barkley for at least another two years?”

In this age of blue-chip recruits de-committing, I expected a non-committal answer. Maybe Sanders would deflect and say that he’s confident in his abilities and that he would be willing to compete. Maybe he would talk about Barkley being a great guy and that he met him on a recruiting visit.

His answer was “C,” none of the above.

“I see Saquon doing his thing up there,” Sanders told Saturday Tradition back in December 2015. “I just can’t wait to get up there with him, become a 1-2 punch and do damage in the B1G.”

Sanders kept his commitment to Penn State and as a result, the Lions got the top tailback recruit in the country to buy into playing with Barkley. He could’ve went somewhere else and possibly did exactly what Barkley did as a true freshman in 2015.

In 2017, Penn State is really going to reap the benefits of Sanders’ commitment.

Sanders2

You can tell a lot about a guy based on how he approaches his first real offseason in college. Not every five-star recruit attacks the winter workout period.

Sanders certainly didn’t fall into that category. At all.

After coming to Penn State hovering around 200 pounds, Sanders entered this spring at a bulked-up 224. James Franklin was taken aback.

“I texted (Sanders’) mom that ‘Her baby looks like a man right now,'” Franklin said at the beginning of spring practices. “He was standing next to Saquon — they’re two impressive-looking guys — and he doesn’t have Saquon’s legs. Few people do. But he is put together right now.”

And in case there was any doubt about Sanders’ lower-body strength, here’s video of him squatting a couple weeks ago:

In 2016, Sanders was mostly used as a true backup and as a return specialist. He finished the season with 25 carries for 184 yards, two catches for 24 yards and 33 kickoff returns (a Penn State record) for 688 yards (second in program history).

After seeing Sanders’ progress this offseason, one thing is clear. He’s not bulking up in hopes of getting garbage-time carries and holding on to his kickoff return job. He’s gearing up to become a complimentary tailback in 2017.

Ok, calm down. I can hear Penn State fans already.

“Why would you suggest that Barkley should touch the ball less?! If this is his last season, shouldn’t he get as many carries as he can handle?”

RELATED: Penn State’s talented offense still has one big question to answer in 2017

That’s a fair point. But what if I told you that there could be enough work so that Barkley could bid for the Heisman Trophy and Sanders could get some key second-year experience?

As explosive as the Lions were last year, they actually didn’t have a ton of garbage time. They only had five games all season in which they entered the fourth quarter leading by 14 points or more. Franklin repeatedly talked about how he wished his team turned on the jets earlier in games. Bigger early leads obviously means more work for young guys like Sanders.

Given all the offensive talent the Lions return, there’s reason to believe that they could be on the right side of a few more early blowouts in 2017.

But Sanders can be part of the reason for those blowouts. Plenty of Heisman candidate tailbacks had a backup that averaged double-digit carries:

2014 MELVIN GORDON COREY CLEMENT
Carries 343 147
Rushing yards 2,587 949
Touchdowns 29 9
2009 MARK INGRAM TRENT RICHARDSON
Carries  271 145
Rushing yards  1,658 751
Touchdowns 17 8
2007 DARREN McFADDEN FELIX JONES
Carries 325 133
Rushing yards 1,830 1,162
Touchdowns 16 11

Is Sanders on the same level of Jones or Richardson yet? No, but if his production warrants it, Sanders could easily average double-digit carries without dipping too far into Barkley’s workload. That’d be a whole lot more than the 1.79 carries per game he averaged last year.

That’s not to say that Sanders was underused in 2016. The coaching staff knows his understanding of the offense better than I do. If that’s what they wanted to do with him as a true freshman, there’s nothing wrong with that. But it would be surprising if Sanders’ workload didn’t multiply in his sophomore season.

Penn State would prefer not to have Barkley carry the ball 30-plus times against the likes of Indiana and Maryland. Given Barkley’s value and his history of ankle injuries, he might not exceed the 272 carries he got in 2016.

Andre Robinson and Mark Allen will also earn touches. After all, they both got more backfield work than Sanders last year.

But Sanders was the five-star recruit and the promising true freshman. He’s the one that’s being groomed to be the heir apparent to Barkley’s reign of the Penn State backfield.

For now, though, Sanders will focus on helping the Lions deliver that 1-2 punch.

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Photo Credit: Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

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