Saquon Barkley is the nation’s best football player at humiliating opponents.
We can focus on his statistics—he leads the FBS with 1,013 all-purpose yards—or his Heisman Trophy hype—Vegas gives him the best odds of anyone to win the 2017 award right now. But no numbers or accolades can summarize Barkley. Much like the Road Runner with Wile E. Coyote, he does more than simply outrun those trying to catch him. Barkley’s entertainment value comes from his ability to lure defenders off cliffs, turn their malfunctioning Acme products against them, and convince them to sprint into landscapes that turn out to be elaborately detailed frescoes.
To fully appreciate what makes Penn State’s junior running back so special, it’s necessary to understand what it’s like to try to tackle him. For that, let’s go to 26 defenders who thought they could bring down no. 26.
1. Joshua Jackson, Cornerback, Iowa
2. Amani Hooker, Safety, Iowa
There’s a split-second when a defender attempting to tackle Barkley thinks he has everything figured out, like a toddler manning a claw machine and hovering over a toy he wants. In this play from the third quarter of Penn State’s 21-19 win over Iowa last Saturday, Jackson sprints up to meet Barkley and sees the Nittany Lions standout charging directly at him. A-ha, Jackson might have thought. My sheer speed has closed down the nation’s best running back.
But as Jackson extends his arm wide and winds his body into a springlike coil, Barkley leaps. The Hawkeyes’ 6-foot-1, 185-pound cornerback bursts forward into nothingness. Jackson floats, powerless, braced for contact with a player who has passed him by.
Still, that’s not even the most remarkable part of this play. As Barkley vaults over Jackson, Hooker hits Barkley with everything he’s got, right in the thigh. At this point, it should be easy to take Barkley down—just a simple boop in the lower body, and Barkley should be unable to regain his balance.
Only Barkley brushes off Hooker’s hit like it’s nothing, gyroscoping his legs back to the ground before steaming past the first-down marker. I knew cats were capable of regaining their balance in mere milliseconds as they fell; I guess Nittany Lions can do that, too.
3. Christian Heyward, Defensive Tackle, San Diego State
4. J.J. Whittaker, Safety, San Diego State
5. Damontae Kazee, Cornerback, San Diego State
6. Na’im McGee, Safety, San Diego State
The spin move is not Barkley’s favorite, but he used it twice in one half during a 37-21 win over San Diego State his freshman year. First, he shakes off a would-be tackle by Heyward, then uses his momentum to spin past Whittaker, who crumples to his knees in defeat.
In the next quarter, Barkley spins away from a potential hit from Kazee. Now a junior, Barkley seems to think two or three moves ahead. He wasn’t as seasoned in 2015, and this spin move brings him right into McGee’s path. But even as a freshman, Barkley was a physical monster. And he drops McGee effortlessly.
Barkley moved from New York City to small-town Pennsylvania when he was 5. He wasn’t a highly heralded recruit at first, committing to Rutgers. Rutgers! But his stature quickly rose, as he became a four-star recruit and flipped to Penn State, a decision that led to what might be the funniest tweet in college football beat writer history. Barkley torched the Scarlet Knights for 195 yards in just his third college game, becoming a freshman All-American.
7. Joey Bosa, Defensive End, Ohio State
8. Tyvis Powell, Safety, Ohio State
Good news, Saquon: You have the ball! Bad news: You probably shouldn’t. In this 2015 clash with Ohio State, your team would rather not attempt to block Joey Bosa, who would go on to be the no. 3 overall pick in the 2016 NFL draft and win the Defensive Rookie of the Year award. So your coach has called an option in the hopes that your quarterback can eliminate Bosa from the play by making the right read. Unfortunately, he makes the wrong read and hands you the ball with Bosa looming 2 yards away. What are you to do?
There’s a bug called the Tiger Beetle, the second-fastest insect in the world. It runs so fast in comparison with its body size that it essentially goes blind while running; its bug brain is unable to interpret all the information its eyes capture. To see, it has to stop running every few seconds.
This is not a problem for Barkley, who jukes perhaps the best defender in college football and then hops over a 6-foot-3 defender about 1.5 seconds later. I’m glad Bosa managed to embark on a successful NFL career so soon after Barkley broke his ankles.
9. Adekunle Ayinde, Safety, Minnesota
Penn State ran one play against Minnesota in overtime of last season’s matchup.
It takes about 3.5 seconds for Barkley to get past the first 10 Golden Gophers defenders. Ayinde, the last man standing in his path, needs to do something to save the game. Instead, he briefly taps Barkley with his left hand. It was a good try.
This 29-26 victory sparked a nine-game Nittany Lions winning streak that culminated in the program’s first Big Ten title since 2008. Barkley averaged 168.8 rushing yards per game in the next four games, and scored 12 total touchdowns during the streak.
10. Ryan Williamson, Safety, Buffalo
11. V’Angelo Bentley, Cornerback, Illinois
12. Will Likely III, Cornerback, Maryland
Some say that hurdling should be made illegal in college and pro football, as it already is in the high school game. The argument is that the move is too dangerous. If a player miscalculates his jump and clips an opponent’s helmet or shoulder, that player is likely to fall face first toward the ground, risking serious head and neck injuries.
I say football should ban hurdles for everybody but Barkley.
Each of these defenders tries to go low on Barkley. Each fails, done in by Barkley’s ability to rise up 5 feet in less than a second.
Barkley can reportedly run a sub-4.4-second 40-yard dash, which isn’t unique among running backs. What is unique is his strength. Barkley’s squat videos have become stuff of legend, and he broke a Penn State program power-clean record last year. (That means he power-cleaned more than the linemen, who are much bigger than Barkley is.) Many running backs possess the ability to go fast. Few possess the strength to change direction as quickly as Barkley does. This is why defenders keep tackling the air to the left of Barkley, to the right of Barkley, and most notably, below Barkley.
13. Uchenna Nwosu, Linebacker, USC
14. Marvell Tell III, Safety, USC
15. Ajene Harris, Cornerback, USC
16. Chris Hawkins, Safety, USC
17. Porter Gustin, Linebacker, USC
18-24: Assorted Other Hopeless USC Defenders
The highlight of Barkley’s career to this point came in January’s Rose Bowl against USC, on a touchdown that brought Barkley from the left hash mark at Penn State’s 21-yard line to the left corner of the end zone. The scorebook says this was a 79-yard touchdown run, but watch the clip: He ran about 150 yards and left roughly half of USC’s roster on its knees.
Penn State wasn’t expected to be in the Rose Bowl last season. But thanks to Barkley and TB Trace McSorley—I’ve decided that McSorley’s position is “ThrowBro” instead of quarterback, please use the TB abbreviation from here on out—the Nittany Lions made it happen. And now, with both players thriving in 2017, they have their sights on the College Football Playoff.
25. Manny Rugamba, Cornerback, Iowa
26. Josey Jewell, Linebacker, Iowa
Sometimes we think about football too much like it’s a video game, with one player in charge of the controls, figuring out how best to deal with 21 automatons. We forget to assign intelligence to any player other than the quarterback, when in fact every play represents a symphony of decision-making. Every football position requires reaction and awareness, a mental aspect that some players have and others don’t.
This is especially apparent with running backs. The best ones are often described as having great “vision,” a term that refers to a player’s reactive ability to detect openings amid a frenzied, fluctuating mass of bodies. Interpreting a wealth of information instantaneously and diagnosing the correct course of action is an immensely difficult mental skill; calling it “vision” makes it sound like a physical trait.
Yes, Barkley’s freakish strength and agility and balance make him an excellent running back. He’d pick up first downs even if he just used his speed to beeline for the sideline or his power to bowl over defenders. But what sets him apart is his ability to outfox opponents. He doesn’t merely try to beat defenders down the field; he lures them into going someplace that he won’t be. It’s not merely reactive. It’s body chess. Barkley is the only person who can pull off the moves he makes, and few other running backs could even think of doing what he does.
On this play against Iowa, Barkley heads toward the sideline, which hypothetically should make things simpler for the Hawkeyes defenders. They don’t have to drag Barkley down; they just have to get one of his feet to land out of bounds. And Iowa is well positioned to stop him: Rugamba and Jewell have bracketed the running back, with the former trailing and the latter coming from the side. Barkley, for all intents and purposes, is trapped.
Barkley realizes there is one small window of time and space he can access to keep his run alive. He needs to outrun Rugamba and stop on a dime to avoid Jewell. So that’s what he does, delivering a highlight that looks like a choreographed fight scene in a kung fu movie. Rugamba flails at Barkley’s cleats; Jewell goes flying out of bounds; and Barkley, who coordinated it all in a matter of seconds, instantly regains his momentum as if none of this ever happened. And it wasn’t the last time in this game that Barkley would dance past Jewell.
For most running backs, attempting to engage Jewell in this scenario would be a dumb play. The Iowa linebacker was a preseason first-team All-American. Barkley’s decision risked a potential loss of yardage as the clock ticked toward zero.
But Barkley is not most running backs. He assessed the situation and realized that he could get a first down and get out of bounds, even with one of the best defenders in the nation squared up a few yards away. If Barkley hadn’t done this, Penn State might have lost.
All these defenders thought they could tackle Saquon Barkley. But Saquon Barkley knew that they couldn’t. Watching him reveal how they’ll fail is my favorite thing in college football.