Sanders stays patient at Penn State

Miles Sanders has backed up Saquon Barkley the last two years at running back for Penn State. ASSOCIATED PRESS

STATE COLLEGE – Miles Sanders came to Penn State as the No. 1 running back recruit in the nation, but he hasn’t had many opportunities to play the past two seasons behind superstar teammate Saquon Barkley.

“I just had to be patient,” Sanders said, “and I got real humbled when I first got here, so I just waited whenever my time comes.”

Barkley has one more game left as PSU’s starting tailback in next week’s Fiesta Bowl against Washington. After that, the job will belong to Sanders, the sensational talent out of Woodland Hills High School in Pittsburgh.

“With me being a top recruit and a five star coming out of high school, coming here expecting to play but having real limited reps kind of humbled me and made me work harder, just to prove what I can do and what I’m capable of,” Sanders said.

We’ve seen at times what Sanders is capable of, watching him reel off some long runs in his limited chances. He had a 29-yard TD this season against Georgia State, a 25-yard score against Maryland last year, plus a 57-yard run against Rutgers.

The talent is clearly there. But replacing perhaps the best running back in Penn State history not only will require physical talent, but also a sharp mental focus to be ready to contribute in any way at any time.

Sanders says he’s ready, thanks in large part to what he’s learned from Barkley.

“Just being patient and just watching, seeing what he does and the tough situations he gets put in,” Sanders said. “I think I’m pretty sure I’ll be ready for next year, and whatever is coming next year, I’m going to keep preparing the way I do.”

Barkley has praised Sanders’ work ethic the past two years, and if there’s anything that goes to show what the record-setting tailback thinks about his successor, it’s this.

“He told me leave him some records,” Sanders said. “He’s been telling me that for a long time because he thinks I can do something real special when I get my chance.”

How the Penn State coaching staff uses the running backs in the Fiesta Bowl will be interesting to watch.

If it’s like any other game, Barkley will be on the field for just about every snap, while Sanders watches from the sideline.

However, Barkley is expected to leave PSU a year early and be one of the top picks in next year’s NFL draft. He will play in the bowl game because of its elite status – it’s questionable whether he would if the Lions were in a much lesser bowl – and James Franklin might decide not to overdo it and risk putting too much of a workload on the star running back.

If that’s the case, Barkley could be in line for 8-10 carries and a few catches, while Sanders gets more playing time and also 8-10 carries or more.

“Saquon is a good competitor,” Sanders said when asked what he’s learned from Barkley. “He is a workaholic. He knows the offense inside and out. He knows the defense inside and out. I try to learn as much as I can from him and he tries to learn from me. The whole running back room tries to stay competitive, and we hold each other to a standard.”

Franklin was asked about what assures him that Sanders will be able to take on a bigger role after Barkley leaves.

“I don’t know if anything assures you,” the coach said. “We’re excited about Miles and his future, and obviously he’s done a really good job behind Saquon Barkley, and when he got opportunities, really running with it.

“You really see every aspect of his game over the last two years really developing, from ball security, from pass protection, in terms of just getting bigger and stronger. You look at him the other day, his lower body development, it’s impressive to look at him. The game comes natural for him.”

Barkley, who finished fourth in this year’s Heisman Trophy voting, set such a high standard for a PSU running back that it would be tough for anyone to equal it next year. Fortunately, the Lions have another potential star waiting in the wings.

Sanders came to PSU with a lot of hype, and even though he hasn’t gotten on the field much, he says he has made a lot of improvements.

“I think I am faster, stronger, and more explosive,” Sanders said. “Learning the offense inside and out and the defense, too, has been huge for me.”