Saquon Barkley is the type of tailback who keeps opposing coaches staring at the ceiling overnight. The Penn State sophomore blends extraordinary quickness, strength and shiftiness, and is equally dangerous rushing and receiving.
“I think he’s the best back in the Big Ten,” Gophers defense coordinator Jay Sawvel said. “I guess our backs might get mad at me in that sense, so let’s just take ours out of it.”
The Gophers like tailbacks Rodney Smith, Shannon Brooks and Kobe McCrary so much that linebacker Jonathan Celestin tempered his thoughts on Barkley, heading into Saturday’s game at Penn State.
“I don’t see [Barkley] as one of the toughest backs,” Celestin said. “I see him as a mixture of what we go against every day in practice. I see a little bit of Rodney’s shiftiness, Shannon’s strongness, a little bit of Kobe’s size. So I feel like we should be able to defend him well.”
One hot-button topic through Penn State’s rocky 2-2 start has been the team’s inability to fully tap Barkley’s potential. Michigan held him to 59 rushing yards in last week’s 49-10 victory over the Nittany Lions, though he added 77 yards on five receptions.
The Gophers defense has struggled against the pass but has improved against the run, allowing 118.7 yards per game compared with 166.4 last year. What can they do to keep Barkley in check?
It starts with defensive tackle Steven Richardson. The junior from Chicago spent most of Saturday’s game in Colorado State’s backfield, racking up four tackles for a loss.
“We need that from him,” Sawvel said. “We’re going to see better teams that run the football against us these next two weeks than maybe what we’ve seen. Part of the reason the [rushing] average is down a little bit right now is because of him. He’s a disrupter.”
The Barkley vs. Richardson matchup is interesting because neither player is a towering giant. Barkley is 5-11, 223 pounds, and Richardson is listed generously at 6 feet, 300. But both are extremely strong and athletic, with calves the size of thighs.
“The key to stopping [Barkley] is making him go sideways,” Richardson said. “Getting a lot of guys around the ball. Just bottling him up, not letting him go anywhere.”
Penn State’s concern isn’t Barkley vs. Richardson. It’s senior center Brian Gaia vs. Richardson. If Gaia studies the film, he’ll see how much trouble Richardson gave Colorado State center Jake Bennett last week, when the Gophers shifted to a 3-4 defense for much of the game.
“You can’t run some of what we ran the other day without a nose [guard] that’s dominant, and we felt like [Richardson] was dominant,” Sawvel said. “He’s a problem for a guy that has to snap the ball and try to block him.”
Richardson had eight tackles for a loss last season, despite missing three games because of calf injuries. This week, he made Pro Football Focus’ list of “Breakout NFL Prospects.”
“At 6-0, 291 pounds, Richardson may get passed over by NFL teams looking for bigger interior linemen,” the story said. “But it’s hard to ignore his early-season production that has included monster games against Oregon State and again last weekend against Colorado State.”
The Gophers will need more than Richardson to slow Barkley, who runs the 40-yard dash in 4.4 seconds and can bench press 390 pounds.
Michigan has excellent cornerbacks, including All-America Jourdan Lewis, so the Wolverines were able to play man coverage and load the box for Barkley.
For the season, he has averaged 4.8 yards per carry, compared with 5.9 last year, when he broke D.J. Dozier’s record for a Penn State freshman with 1,076 rushing yards, despite missing two games because of injuries.
“We have played some very physical defenses,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “You look at Pitt, they have not allowed anybody to run the ball on them this year. You look at Michigan, they are one of the better defenses in the country. So there’s no doubt that we need to be better.”
Not if Richardson can help it.