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Saquon Barkley is a Heisman candidate who’s also destined for NFL stardom

NCAA Football: Pittsburgh at Penn State
Penn State Nittany Lions running back Saquon Barkley (26) runs with the ball after a catch in front of Pittsburgh Panthers linebacker Saleem Brightwell (39) during the third quarter at Beaver Stadium.
Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

If Saquon Barkley isn’t a household name by now, your household doesn’t watch enough college football. Not only is Barkley considered a top college talent, but a Heisman frontrunner too. If NFL teams were high on Leonard Fournette or Christian McCaffrey, they’ll be exhilarated about Saquon Barkley.

The Penn State running back has produced consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons on 5.7 yards per carry and 25 touchdowns. He proved to be dual-threat running back after tacking on 402 receiving yards. In the Rose Bowl, Barkley had 25 carries for 194 yards and two touchdowns on the ground, and added five receptions for 55 yards and a touchdown. When the stakes are the highest, Barkley has proven to leave his mark on the game.

His speed, quickness, power and explosiveness make him a nightmare for defenders to tackle. Barkley sits atop the throne of best running back prospects, and is expected to be taken in the top five according to most mock drafts. At 5'11" and 223 pounds, he uses his size to bounce off defenders in the open field. Barkley has the traits to be an elite back, but could the Penn State scheme be hiding some of Barkley’s flaws?

NCAA Football: Pittsburgh at Penn State
Penn State Nittany Lions running back Saquon Barkley (26) reacts after scoring a touchdown during the fourth quarter against the Pittsburgh Panthers at Beaver Stadium.
Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

Strengths: His very thick legs are an attribution to his acceptional lower body strength. Not only can Barkley blow by defenders using his speed, he can truck through them too. His elite speed has been rumored to be timed in the 4.3 range, but his short area quickness is equally as rare. He often reaches the second level so quickly, the rest of the defense doesn’t have time to position themselves to make a play on him. His soft hands may be the best in the class, gashing teams for big plays in the passing game. By breaking away from defenders using devastating cuts and jukes, he’s a threat to take it to the house in any open field opportunity. His hips are loose which allow him to sink in and out of cuts and redirections. Barkley has great vision and can make something out of nothing, but questions will arise about Penn State’s offense playing into Barkley’s favor.

Weaknesses: It’s easy to see the offense is built around opening up the field and running a zone-read, where quarterback Trace McSorley and Barkley form a dynamic duo. The zone-read is gives the quarterback the liberty of reading the defensive end’s attack against him. This offense is exhausted in college, but when the defense bites hard on McSorley, Barkley gets the ball in a favorable scenario, isolated against a single defender in open field.

One area of weakness is pass protection. His technique needs refinement, and his blitz pickups are underwhelming. It’s not a matter of strength or effort, it’s a lack of squaring up and bend in his knees.

Additionally, he must avoid falling in love with bouncing plays to the outside. Yes, he can outrun almost any defender. However, it’s a different speed in the NFL, and he must be more decisive to take on safe yardage between blocks instead of bouncing it to the outside for a home run play. This isn’t a major problem, but it’s something he’ll have to recognize at the next level.

Overall assessment: It’s clear Barkley has elite talent and traits that may translate into a franchise-changing running back in the NFL. He’ll need to do more damage in between the tackles/up the middle of the field, but the play calling at PSU may prevent him from doing so. Barring poor play or a catastrophic injury, Barkley should be a top-5 pick in the upcoming NFL draft.

Prediction: Top-5