The five things Saquon Barkley has to do to become a legitimate Heisman candidate
Ok, pump the brakes. You might be thinking that, and I know I’m thinking that.
“Why are you talking about a true sophomore as a Heisman Trophy candidate?”
Pump the brakes on that question.
Last time I checked, that McCaffrey guy was 19 when he set the NCAA record for all-purpose yards (that was after he had 551 total yards as a freshman). Ezekiel Elliott delivered the most impressive postseason stretch ever for a running back as a true sophomore. And don’t forget that Ron Dayne eclipsed 2,000 yards as a sophomore.
Oh wait, he was a freshman when he did that.
So don’t use age as an excuse. From what we saw from Barkley as a true freshman last year, there’s every reason to believe that he’ll be in the Heisman conversation. ESPN already named him as the B1G’s sleeper candidate. That’s what happens when you run for six yards per carry and display some of the freakish abilities that Barkley did as a freshman.
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He obviously won’t approach the Heisman discussion without some improvement. He is still learning a new offense, and one that will require him to improve on his pass protection skills. Three-down backs are the only ones that earn Heisman consideration.
Beyond becoming that, here are the five things Barkley can do in 2016 to at least put himself into that conversation.
1. 2,200 yards from scrimmage, 20 TDs
Sounds lofty, right? Well, consider this. Look at the numbers of the running backs who finished in the top 10 in Heisman voting last year:
- Derrick Henry — 2,310 yards (from scrimmage), 28 TDs
- Christian McCaffrey — 2,664 yards, 13 TDs
- Leonard Fournette — 2,206 yards, 23 TDs
- Dalvin Cook — 1,935 yards, 20 TDs
- Ezekiel Elliott — 2,027 yards, 23 TDs
All five of those backs were at least “in the conversation.” In any normal year, and all five would’ve been in New York. Instead, only Henry and McCaffrey got invites. Oregon’s Royce Freeman wasn’t even a top-10 vote-getter after a season with 2,184 total yards and 19 touchdowns. So for argument’s sake, that’s how I came up with the 2,200-yard, 20-TD mark.
Can Barkley hit numbers like that? Well, 50 players in FBS ran for more yards than he did in 2015. Only two of them finished with fewer than the 182 carries that Barkley got.
All signs point to that turning around in Joe Moorhead’s offense. Penn State will run the ball more, it’ll just be a matter of how much work Barkley gets. Moorhead’s feature back at Fordham, Chase Edmonds, got 282 touches from scrimmage as a sophomore last year.
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Edmonds finished 2015 with 2,031 yards and 25 touchdowns. That was an average of 7.2 yards per touch and 11.3 touches per score. Barkley, by comparison, was at 6.1 yards per touch and 25.3 touches per score. Apply Edmonds’ volume to Barkley’s 2015 campaign, and he would’ve been looking at a season with 1,727 yards.
Obviously Edmonds and Barkley are in different situations. There’s no guarantee that Barkley will match Edmonds’ success at the FCS level. But Moorhead got a whole lot out of a three-star running back who didn’t have an FBS offer. Something tells me he’ll enjoy working with a talent like Barkley.
2. Be within arm’s reach of Cook/Fournette/McCaffrey
This seems obvious, but in an award where reputation matters, this is important. All three of those guys are coming into 2016 with Heisman expectations. All eyes will be on them. If recent history suggests anything, it’s that those guys don’t necessarily have to increase their productivity to remain in that conversation. They just have to maintain or not see a significant drop-off.
For Barkley, it’s a different story.
To be in the same breath as an obvious Heisman candidate and make “Barkley” a household name, he can’t be far from any of those guys statistically. Falling behind a few hundred yards and a handful of touchdowns early in the season would make it a tough climb.
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Unfortunately for Barkley, it could be an uphill battle by October. He starts the season against four straight defenses that finished in the top 40 nationally against the run. The two household names (McCaffrey and Fournette) will face one combined in the first four weeks.
Those two guys will be the standard that all other running backs are measured against. Running back isn’t like quarterback when it comes to the Heisman race. There’s an even smaller percentage of tailbacks that are deemed worthy of college football’s top individual honor.
Barkley will have to look the part every step of the way.
3. Light up B1G powers
Heisman campaigns are made in primetime. That’s no secret. If you don’t believe that, than look what was being said about Fournette before and after the Alabama game last year.
No games will be more important for Barkley’s Heisman legitimacy than the showdowns against Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State. Part of the reason this discussion is even worth having is because of what Barkley did against those three teams. Lost in the shuffle of three blowout losses was the fact that Barkley held his own against three top-25 run defenses that were loaded with NFL players. He had 58 rushes for 365 yards, which averaged out to 6.3 yards per carry.
Barkley was most impressive when he ripped off 198 yards — it felt like more — against Ohio State in Columbus. He was the only tailback to run for 100-plus yards against the Buckeyes all season.
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That’s the type of effort he’ll need again. We already know that game will be an 8 p.m. ET kickoff on ESPN. That showdown in Happy Valley could serve as the perfect stage for Barkley to assert himself.
His other two games against B1G East powers (Michigan and Michigan State) bookend the conference schedule. They could serve as a loud B1G introduction or closing argument for Barkley.
It’s a forgone conclusion by some that those three will be the three teams to beat in the B1G. There’s no better way for Barkley to help himself — and possibly Penn State’s national reputation — than by running over a couple of them.
4. Go viral…again
So remember last year when Barkley hurdled over the entire Illinois defense and into the end zone from the 20-yard line? Ok, that might be a slight exaggeration, but that’s what it felt like when I watched it 20 times. That’s not an exaggeration.
In the world of Twitter, Vine and YouTube, players like Barkley can thrive. Not everybody is going to flip on Penn State on a given Saturday. You know what they will flip on? A Vine of Barkley hurdling over an entire defense.
It’s no longer about just getting on the highlight reel by taking a sweep 20 yards to the house. Remember when Fournette shook that poor Auburn defender off his shoulders?
I still can’t believe it.
That play was the launching point for Fournette’s Heisman campaign. Fournette, Henry and McCaffrey all had their viral moments throughout the season. For a Heisman voter in Pac-12 country who’s covering a game and can’t watch Barkley live, he can see a Vine and couple that with a box score to form an opinion.
Like it or not, public perception matters in Heisman voting. If the internet blows up when Barkley does something, it’s obviously a boost to his candidacy.
5. Lead Penn State to at least nine regular season wins
Items 1-4 might be meaningless if this doesn’t happen. And if you ask Barkley, he’s probably only focused on accomplishing No. 5, as he should be.
Penn State has to have national relevance. Honestly, nine wins might even be a little low. Fournette’s Heisman campaign was all but over when he was held to 31 yards in a loss to Alabama. He still averaged 170 yards per contest in his final three games, but LSU finished the season with eight wins after starting 7-0.
Can a running back on a mediocre team still get an invite to New York? Sure. Andre Williams did it in 2013 playing for a seven-win Boston College team. How did he do it? He rushed for nearly 300 more yards than any other running back. In a year when Cook, Fournette and McCaffrey are all back, accomplishing that feat would be quite the challenge.
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If we’re talking about Barkley actually winning the award and being more than an invitee, it would likely be because Penn State won the B1G East and was either College Football Playoff-bound or Rose Bowl-bound.
Look at the team success of every Heisman Trophy-winning tailback in the last 30 years:
- 2015 — Derrick Henry, won national title, 1st in AP
- 2009 — Mark Ingram, won national title, 1st in AP
- 1999 — Ron Dayne, 4th in AP
- 1998 — Ricky Williams, 15th in AP
- 1995 — Eddie George, 6th in AP
- 1994 — Rashaan Salaam, 3rd in AP
- 1988 — Barry Sanders, 11th in AP
The hurdle that Barkley or any other tailback is up against is obvious. Every Heisman Trophy-winning back this century has been from Alabama and en route to a national title. McCaffrey was the unfortunate victim of that trend, and as long as Nick Saban is in Tuscaloosa, that could happen any given year.
The reality is, it’s still incredibly difficult for a tailback to win the award, much less one who isn’t among the 15 candidates with preseason Heisman odds. The point of this wasn’t to prove that Barkley’s Heisman chances are impossible. After all, he ran for more yards as a true freshman than Cook, Fournette and McCaffrey.
But if Barkley starts off the season with a few monster games, the Heisman talk will likely surface. Now, at the very least, you know the path that would lead him to college football immortality.