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Analysis: Penn State’s Sanders up to tall task

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Miles Sanders. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. –– Saquon Barkley is off to the NFL, which means Penn State is tasked with replacing an All-America running back who finished third in Heisman Trophy voting.

Enter Woodland Hills product Miles Sanders.

Sanders came to Happy Valley as the top-ranked high school player in Pennsylvania and one of the top running backs in the country. However, the past two seasons, he saw a majority of his time playing special teams and learning from Barkley.

"I make the argument that Miles has been in a lab with one of the best professors in the country, " Penn State coach James Franklin said during the recent spring sessions, and he was right: Behind Barkley, Sanders watched and learned from a player with out-of-this-world athleticism who could exploit defenses with both his hands and legs. Barkley accumulated 1,903 total yards and 21 touchdowns in 2017.

Sanders might be ready to take over right where Barkley left off in the athleticism department and, over the past two seasons, Penn State fans have caught glimpses of that athleticism, albeit in small sample sizes.

The time is now for Sanders to show if he is capable of replacing Barkley.

Here are four ways he can do that sooner rather than later:

1. Use his experience on special teams and backup on offense to his advantage as a starter.

Playing behind Barkley for two seasons could end up being a blessing in disguise for Sanders and the Penn State offense. Coming to campus as a top-rated player and having to sit behind an accomplished tailback is assuredly not an easy thing to digest at the age of 18. And at times Sanders could be seen as eager to get on the field and prove his worth, which ended up being exactly what Franklin wanted from the heir to Barkley.

"There's been times where Miles has been impatient," Franklin said. "But, that's what I want. I want him to be hungry and want to be on the field."

It's not as though Sanders was a slouch or failed to perform when called upon. In fact, he thrived on special teams, returning 33 kickoffs for 688 yards good enough for second on the all-time single-season return yards list behind only Chaz Powell's 733 yards in 2011.

Maybe that experience, combined with the humility it brings, will help. In fact, it might be a necessary first step, since expectations are sure to be unreasonably high.

2. Don't try to be Saquon II.

The comparisons to Barkley won't stop until Sanders hits the field as the starter, and when he does, it will be up to him to silence the comparisons ... by being himself.

Barkley's athleticism was both a blessing and a curse for the Penn State offense. When at his best, he'd dart through the second level and be off to the races while hurdling opponents and jump cutting his way down the field. When not at his best, Barkley would attempt to get away from would-be tacklers and end up tackled for a loss in an attempt to do too much.

Trying to be Barkley would be a disservice to Sanders'  athleticism. He's got the speed, downhill running style and the power necessary to be an elite back at the Division 1 level.

As a case in point, watch this 29-yard touchdown run against Georgia State:

Sanders kept his eyes down field, did not try to go backward, instead moving side to side, and wound up finding open space to run to the end zone. Simple bounces outside like that could provide big-time splash.

"Barkley told me to leave him some records," Sanders said following the Fiesta Bowl, "He thinks I could be something special when I get the chance."

3. Get the ball in space and let natural instincts and athleticism take over.

When Sanders got to the second level, good things were bound to happen. Getting to that second level is most difficult, but once there, the easy part took take center stage.

His speed allows him to get to the edge quickly and up field.

Take a look at this clip from the 2017 Iowa game:

 

Sanders found  that second level, then darted quickly to get to the edge and up field, albeit for a short gain. Much like Barkley, when Sanders is running downhill with momentum, he's hard to stop. And if he gets to the boundary, it's trouble for the defense. You can see in the clip above Sanders welcomes contact and seeks it out as he's attempting to get downfield.

4. Be welcoming of being a decoy.

Penn State returns starting quarterback Trace McSorley for 2018 which is sure to cause opposing defenses fits. And while the offense will surely be focused on the use of McSorley's arm and legs, Sanders will still see a majority of the carries in the backfield. He also will be a factor in the passing game.

Sanders saw his most extensive performance in the 2017 Fiesta Bowl, a 35-28 victory over the Washington Huskies, as he and Barkley alternated drives throughout the first half.  Sanders didn't light up the stat sheet, but he did prove valuable as a blocker and decoy when on the field. In a run-pass-option offense such as the one Penn State deploys, being a blocker and a decoy is nearly as important as carrying the football.

Sanders being used as a decoy and often as a blocker gives McSorley more time to make reads and throw the ball downfield, while also allowing Sanders to be a safety valve should a play break down. One of the better attributes Barkley demonstrated without the ball was blocking in pass protection, as well as being a decoy and it sprung the offense for big gains down field when McSorley could find receivers.

A complete player with exceptional gifts and a nose for the game?

Sound familiar?

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