Matt Millen once asked Barry Sanders just how he sees the field when running with the football. Sanders’ answer reminded Millen this week of Penn State’s Saquon Barkley.
“Barry looked at me real quietly and said, ‘I see the same things you do. I can just get there,’” remembered Millen, the Fox Sports and Big Ten Network analyst. “And that’s Saquon.”
Barkley returns to Ohio Stadium on Saturday, leading No. 2 Penn State against No. 6 Ohio State in the Big Ten’s benchmark game of the year. In 2015, Barkley delivered his 194-yard freshman breakthrough at the Horseshoe in a game that made believers of those Millen had been nudging about Barkley since before that season began.
Two years later, Barkley has become the kind of all-around back he envisioned then, and Millen is comparing him to some of the NFL’s all-time greats.
“The best running back I’ve ever seen, the best pure runner, is Barry Sanders,” said Millen, a Penn State graduate who won four Super Bowl rings in 12 NFL seasons. “Saquon’s not Barry. He’s just a notch behind Barry, which puts him at Marshall Faulk. And Marshall Faulk is the next-best runner I’ve seen.”
Barkley, a Whitehall High graduate like Millen, is considered not only the Heisman Trophy favorite (4/7 odds this week, according to the Westgate Las Vegas Superbook) but also an NFL prodigy. ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. this week made Barkley his No. 1 overall prospect for the 2018 NFL draft, even though Barkley has one more year of college eligibility.
Former Penn State coach Bill O’Brien, who briefly recruited Barkley in 2013, said this week that teams will be fighting over the running back soon.
“You’re going have to go way up to get him, I know that, because he’s a top draft pick,” O’Brien, head coach of the Houston Texans, told ESPN’s Adam Schefter on his podcast.
Millen, the former Detroit Lions general manager, maintains a network of friends in coaching and scouting, all of whom covet Barkley’s skills, work ethic and reputation as a model teammate. Several NFL scouts have told Millen that Barkley is the No. 1 player on their draft board.
“There’s a lot of love for Saquon,” Millen said, which led him to this conclusion.
“If I were advising Saquon, I would advise him to [enter the draft in 2018],” Millen said. “Now, he’s a different kind of kid. He may say, ‘I’m going to stay [at Penn State].’ But given how that position is, given how he runs kind of recklessly and without regard for his body and given the fact that you can have a running back life of three years in the NFL, you’ve got to be able to get what you can out of the game while you can.”
Millen began mapping Barkley’s career five years ago, when he learned about the back from his brother Andy, then an assistant coach at Whitehall. Millen first saw Barkley in person at Penn State when the team played San Diego State in 2015.
That day, the freshman back dazzled on a screen pass, spinning and glancing his way to a 22-yard touchdown. Millen, who called that game for the Big Ten Network, gasped at the play but also noted how Barkley got caught from behind later on a long run.
“That doesn’t happen anymore,” Millen said. “Now, he runs past angles. He does stuff now that I look at him and say, ‘This is rarefied air this kid is in. You don’t find this.’”
As a former general manager, Millen still thinks in scouting terms, which prompts him to see traits of other running backs in Barkley. He has pass-catching skills comparable to Faulk, some flash like Gale Sayers and the bursts of Tony Dorsett.
“Tony was phenomenal at going full speed and then finding two more steps and you’re like, ‘Where did that come from?’” Millen said. “Saquon has some of that.”
But it’s the comparisons to Sanders to which Millen returns. Like Sanders, who rushed for 15,269 yards in the NFL, Barkley sees space and gets there, Millen said. Lke Sanders, Barkley “lives off his eyes.”
That was most evident at Iowa, where Barkley stopped his body on the sideline to avoid tackles in front of and behind him, then cut back across the field for a 44-yard gain.
“I’ve seen one guy do that. That was it,” Millen said. “And that’s Barry Sanders.”
But Millen quickly suggested tempering expectations, because Barkley is still a college player, “so he has a lot to prove yet. But he has the potential for all that. There’s not a scout that I run into who doesn’t say the same thing.”
Millen also understands that, yes, some hometown bias braids his analysis. Someday, they will share two alma maters, and Barkley has said that people know his nickname is “Sa Sa” because Millen says it so often on television.
There’s a reason.
“I think he’s well deserving of the Heisman,” Millen said. “And for the Heisman Trophy to come out of Coplay, Pennsylvania, that would be awesome.”