Barkley for Heisman hype starts to pick up

ASSOCIATED PRESS Saquon Barkley teams up with Mike Gesicki during Penn State’s Lift for Life Saturday at Holuba Hall on campus.

STATE COLLEGE – Ever since he jumped over a would-be tackler against Buffalo during his first college game in 2015, it was clear Saquon Barkley had a chance to do very special things for Penn State.

There are so many situations in sports when hype and expectations never materialize into reality.

Then there are the very rare situations when a player not only lives up to the enormous hype, he actually exceeds it.

That’s when you’ve got a superstar on your hands.

On and off the field — whether it be his 79-yard TD in the Rose Bowl against USC that many believe is the best run in Penn State history, or his record-setting weightlifting prowess — Barkley already has achieved legend status in Nittany Lion lore.

As he prepares for his third and almost undoubtedly final season of college ball, Barkley is being touted as a leading candidate for the sport’s most prestigious honor, the Heisman Trophy. Whether he wins it or not will depend on numerous factors, but the award is all about generating hype, and Barkley is well ahead of the game in that regard as he’s been receiving tons of it this summer.

“You really can’t get too focused on all that media hype and all the attention you get,” Barkley said Saturday before PSU’s annual Lift for Life charity event. “But obviously you’re still a kid and still a college athlete, so you’ve got to enjoy it. But I don’t try to stay too caught up or get myself too wrapped up in that.”

Staying grounded is important for any player being talked up as a Heisman contender, and that might be the easiest part for Barkley. He has remained a humble young man, even as he’s become the face of PSU football and one of the faces of college football overall.

“It’s cool, and you’ve got to live in the moment and enjoy it,” Barkley said. “But don’t let it get to your head.”

What Barkley cares most about is team success. Which is smart because his Heisman chances will pretty much disappear unless the Lions have a really big season — at least 10-2, or if he puts up absolutely incredible numbers that cannot be overlooked on, say, a 9-3 team.

“If you want individual achievements, that comes with team success,” Bark­ley said. “So you have to put the team first and worry about these guys around you and try to get them better and try and get yourself better every single day, and the rest will take care of itself.”

Every major oddsmaker list of Heisman contenders has Barkley’s name on it, in varying positions. In some he’s a top five candidate, while in others he’s top 10.

So, what would it actually take for him to win the award, from a numbers standpoint, and join John Cappelletti (1973) on PSU’s Heisman list?

Barkley ran for 1,496 yards last season. He probably has to get into the 1,700-yard range this year. He also had 402 receiving yards last season. If he can get to 500, along with 1,700 on the ground, that would be 2,200 overall and certainly would give him a shot.

Racking up a bunch of touchdowns also is key. Barkley had 18 on the ground and four through the air last season. He might have to get to 25 this year, although a few less could do the trick as long as a good number of the TDs are long, highlight-reel plays, which is a specialty of his.

Barkley’s 79-yard scoring run in the Rose Bowl was a thing of beauty, showcasing all of his skills — vision, footwork, juking, cutback, speed — and history shows Heisman voters are affected by those kind of spectacular plays.

The Lions’ toughest game this year figures to be at Ohio State on Oct. 28, and win or lose, Barkley will need to put up good numbers to help his Heisman case. He had 99 yards on 12 carries in last year’s upset of the Buckeyes, and 194 yards on 26 carries his last visit to Columbus as a freshman in 2015.

Barkley’s play on the field isn’t the only reason he’s getting so much Heisman attention. The 5-foot-11, 223-pounder also is a workout warrior who has posted some jaw-dropping numbers in the weight room, leading Bruce Feldman of Sports Illustrated to recently rank the running back as the No. 1 freak athlete in all of college football.

His teammates have known how special Barkley is since the very beginning.

“First training camp with Saquon (in 2015), he broke off like a 60-yard run and he made a move and got up the sideline and ran and took it all the way to the end zone,” tight end Mike Gesicki said. “I think that was kind of the first thing that we saw (special) in Saquon on the field.”

Gesicki roomed with then-quarterback Christian Hackenberg that season and said Barkley was always calling up Hackenberg to see if he could come over and go over the playbook or talk about pass protections.

Clearly, Barkley not only is talented and a hard worker, he pays close attention to detail and always strives to make himself better.

“He’s definitely earned all the success that he has,” Gesicki said.

Barkley is considered a top 10 pick in next year’s NFL draft because of his skill set and versatility. Never one to be content, he still feels like he can improve every aspect of his game.

“You can never be satisfied,” he said. “I’m not in the College Football Hall of Famer or not a (Pro Football) Hall of Famer, so you still can’t be satisfied.”

One area Barkley feels he has taken a step forward in this offseason has been leadership. He understands that for him and the Lions to be successful, he and the other top guys on the team have to push everyone around them to get the most out of each and every player.

“I’ve always been competitive, but I used to be competitive pushing myself, and now it’s more competitive pushing my teammates,” Barkley said. “If you’re winning a rep, kind of talking trash to let them know that you’re beating them, but not to put them down, to motivate them that, all right, I’ve got to win this rep.”

As far as goals this season, Barkley has one. And it’s not the Heisman Trophy.

“You win the Heisman, it’s not going to necessarily mean your team won the national championship,” he said. “That’s the main focus here.”