By PAT YASINSKAS
At approximately 3:40 yesterday afternoon, I knew exactly what I wanted to write in this column. At about 7:30 p.m., I knew I had to go in the exact opposite direction.
So what happened? In what was supposed to be the game of his life, Penn State running back Saquon Barkley didn’t have anything close to the game of his life in a 39-38 loss to Ohio State. Sure, he started the game by returning the opening kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown.
That had me thinking Heisman Trophy. That also had me thinking about something even bigger and better, although the concept has been floating in my head for much of the season. I was thinking that if Barkley came out of college after his junior year, he should be the No. 1 overall pick in the draft.
A running back going No. 1 overall? That’s almost unheard of and hasn’t happened in over 20 years. Now, it’s time for a little disclosure. I grew up in Pennsylvania and have seen just about every one of Barkley’s games, so I might have been a little biased. I thought Barkley had a chance to be the next Barry Sanders, who was not a No. 1 overall pick.
Like Sanders, Barkley is fast, elusive and can catch the ball out of the backfield. I thought that package would be enough to get NFL teams to change how they value running backs. For most of the last two decades, the standard philosophy is that you don’t take running backs too early because you can get good ones in the second or third round.
But I thought Barkley was the next GREAT one. I thought he would be the first running back drafted first overall since Ki-Jana Carter in 1995. Okay, go ahead and give me your best shots about the curse of Penn State running backs in the NFL. Carter, Blair Thomas and Curtis Enis are the poster guys for that and I understand it.
But I think one thing needs to be pointed out about Carter and his NFL career. I firmly believe Carter would have been great if he had not torn up his knee his rookie year. Plus, not every Penn State running back has been an NFL bust. Hall of Famers Franco Harris and Lenny Moore went there and Larry Johnson and Lydell Mitchell did some pretty good things during their NFL careers.
But this isn’t supposed to be a history of Penn State running backs. It’s about Barkley and the No. 1 pick in the draft. I now freely admit that should not be Barkley. It’s one thing to run wild against the Northwesterns and Indianas of the world. But the great ones should still be great against good competition.
Ohio State is a very good team. Maybe a great one. If a running back is going to go first in the draft, he needs to dominate against everybody. Barkley did not come close to dominating against Ohio State. Besides the kickoff return, he also had a 36-yard touchdown run, but that was about it.
It should be noted that Ohio State’s defense did a great job against Barkley. Greg Schiano was not even close to being a good NFL head coach, but he is a damn good college defensive coordinator. He used the philosophy basketball coaches often use when playing against a big scorer – devote everything you have to stopping the big scorer and let the other guys try to beat you.
That philosophy worked. Penn State has a decent supporting cast. Quarterback Trace McSorely is pretty good. But he’s not quite the kind of quarterback who can go into Columbus, put a team on his back and win.
Penn State needed more from Barkley. A lot more. That didn’t happen. I still think Barkley will win the Heisman Trophy and I still think he’s the best running back in the country. But I don’t think he should be taken first overall in the draft. Top 10 maybe, but definitely not No. 1.
In the Super Bowl era, the only running backs to be drafted first overall and make the Pro Football Hall of Fame are Earl Campbell and O.J. Simpson. Say what you want about Simpson’s post-football life, he and Campbell were absolutely dominant in college and the pros.
If Barkley can’t dominate a college game, he doesn’t deserve to go first overall. Instead, whichever NFL team ends up with the first overall pick will do the conventional thing and use the pick on a quarterback, left tackle or defensive.
Meantime, the distance from the last running back to go No. 1 will grow by a year.