SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Those who packed Beaver Stadium and watched from afar around the globe witnessed Saquon Barkley's blossoming stardom since 2015, knowing all too well it would come to an end after three seasons.
It had to. One of the most dynamic players in college football became the darling of NFL scouts and GMs with each viral video of him hitting the squat rack and every hurdle, juke and spin move that was often accompanied by a burst in the open field that most simply do not have.
Replacing Barkley won't be a one-person deal and it will take some getting used to for those following in his footsteps. The No. 26 jerseys won't disappear from Beaver Stadium anytime soon as Barkley wrapped up his collegiate career second on the Lions' all-time rushing list, 89 yards shy of the record.
Where does Penn State go from here?
1. Get to know Miles Sanders
The former Woodland Hills standout came to Penn State knowing he'd have to wait his turn. Now, the time is here.
Seated next to Sanders in the locker room after the Fiesta Bowl, Barkley, the All-America honoree, told his understudy what he's mentioned to him time and time again during the last two seasons: Please, don't break all of his records.
"This guy is amazing. He's a special talent," Barkley said of Sanders as he sat next to him. "Obviously he hasn't really gotten the opportunity as much as he would like to show his talents, but we see it in practice. We see it in flashes. He's strong, he's powerful, he's fast, he's a hard worker and he's humble. He's going to be a great back here in the future. He'll definitely have a future in the NFL. GMs might not know about him yet, but when he gets his chance to shine he will. ... You guys won't be talking about Saquon Barkley for long."
Sanders was able to do more than just get his feet wet this season, as he became Barkley's top backup and returned to being the kick returner in the Fiesta Bowl when Barkley was taken off that duty. The biggest knock on Sanders as a true freshman was ball security and that was not the case this year as the Nittany Lions as a whole were exceptional at hanging on to the ball, losing three fumbles all season. Barkley didn't fumble in his last 21 games, or 377 carries.
Sanders is well aware of the pressure and expectations he's stepping into. While James Franklin already mentioned that the model might look a little different in the backfield next season with more of a back by committee approach, Sanders is the top guy starting off. Signee Ricky Slade will join the team this summer and should add some intrigue, though I can't imagine one camp would be enough to supplant Sanders, a fellow former 5-star back who enters his third fall camp.
But first, Sanders has to get back to being in the spotlight, something he was accustomed to at Woodland Hills.
"I’m a very quiet person," he told me last week. "I’m comfortable around my teammates and my brothers, but I’m a very quiet person, laid back. I work hard and just try to perform when I get my chance.”
2. Where could Barkley go?
As a projected top-10 pick, where could be the potential landing spot for Barkley? Well, this will be all over the mock drafts between now and the draft, but with the Browns holding two of the first four picks, that could be an interesting possibility, as could whatever the Giants decide to do depending on their quarterback situation. Barkley told the Allentown Morning Call he will play wherever he is drafted, so don't look for any draft-day drama in that regard.
Keep in mind, as I'm sure it'll be brought up in the lead up to the draft, that Barkley grew up rooting for the New York Jets -- his favorite player was Curtis Martin -- and his dad even has a Jets tattoo. The family ultimately moved to the Allentown area to get away from their ties to New York and the influences there.
The Colts, with the third overall pick, could be the best landing spot and also might be the most intriguing place for Barkley, given a potential combo of Andrew Luck and T.Y. Hilton to help balance out the offense.
Here's the draft order for the first 20 picks:
4. CLE (Via HOU)
9/10. OAK/SF (coin flip)
Barkley hasn't disclosed who his agent is or if he's selected one yet, but did also tell the Morning Call he will be headed to Orlando to train.
Barkley stayed out west following Saturday night's Fiesta Bowl and was on hand for ESPN's College GameDay on Monday morning out in Pasadena ahead of the Rose Bowl. Barkley was asked about his decision and if he thinks he can be the top player selected in this draft class:
“I think I’m a versatile player. I think I can do it all,” Barkley said during GameDay. “I think I’ve put on film that I’m more than just a running back. Personally, I think I’m a great teammate, great leader. I think I can impact the game in different ways, even when the ball is not in my hands. I can make stuff happen with the ball in my hands, too.”
Expect Barkley to be asked questions like that quite a bit in the next few months as he preps for the Combine and team interviews, and readies for the draft.
3. Will there be more room for Penn State on the ground?
While Barkley finished 89 yards shy of Penn State's all-time rushing record, the inconsistencies on the ground this season were partly due to what defenses were doing to take Barkley out of the game.
Loading the box and keeping all eyes on No. 26 made life tough for him and also the Lions' offensive linemen. There might be more room for Sanders and the other backs next season because defenses likely will come into the season wanting to stop quarterback Trace McSorley and Penn State's aerial attack. What the Lions showed in the Fiesta Bowl, with 11 explosive plays, was a positive sign moving forward. While senior wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton and tight Mike Gesicki are gone -- and perhaps their departures won't get enough mention, but they will be huge voids to fill -- defenses will have to be more honest against this team next season.
Newly appointed offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne will have all offseason to figure out the identity of this offense, and it likely will be through the air and not on the ground.
4. Who steps up in the return game?
Barkley returned two kicks for touchdowns this season and became one of the most explosive returners in the country. Sanders worked back there as a freshman and did so again in the Fiesta Bowl. Whether or not Penn State wants to keep him back there while also taking on a bigger role in the backfield will have to be sorted out this offseason.
The Lions used wide receiver Brandon Polk back there before and could have a rising redshirt freshman they're willing to play as they like to use that position to help get someone on the field, getting his feet wet while still playing a critical role in the third phase.
In the past the Lions liked to get a young running back on the field by making him the kick returner, but we'll have to see what new special teams coordinator Phil Galiano does, and after so much improvement in the return game for Penn State this year, there likely will be some drop off -- even with 10 better, more experienced players ahead of the returner. Losing a special talent is never easy to replace and because Barkley could do so much, Penn State now has to figure out how to spread out all of his duties to make up for the lost production.
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