Former Penn State running back Saquon Barkley tosses a ball around during Penn State Pro Day on Tuesday, March 20, 2018, at Holuba Hall in University Park, Pa. (Abby Drey/Centre Daily Times/TNS)
Photo: Abby Drey/TNS
Photo: Abby Drey/TNS

Penn State's Saquon Barkley awaits NFL draft

As he was growing up, Saquon Barkley spent many an NFL Sunday watching games on television with his father, especially those featuring his favorite team, the New York Jets, and his favorite running back, Curtis Martin, whom he wanted to be like.

Now, Barkley waits as the countdown to Thursday night's NFL draft reaches the time when his name will be called in the first round. Will it be Cleveland, or the New York Giants, or his beloved Jets?

What is certain, however, is that whatever team selects him, Barkley is going to be Barkley, a shifting, darting, stutter-stepping, swift, hurdling, pass-catching, all-purpose back who has the potential to blaze his own trail as one of the very best in the NFL, maybe surpassing the achievements of Martin and another one of his favorite players, Barry Sanders.

The hype has been overwhelming since Dec. 31, the day Barkley, a consensus all-American, announced he was giving up his final year of eligibility at Penn State to pursue his NFL dream. That came after a season in which he became the first player in Big Ten history to win offensive player of the year, running back of the year and returner of the year in the same season.

Barkley signed with Roc Nation at the home of Jay Z, the founder of the entertainment company, a visit he called "one of the coolest moments of my life." Then on Feb. 7, his 21st birthday, he signed a lucrative endorsement deal with Nike.

Barkley went on to the NFL combine, where he wowed scouts from all 32 NFL teams with an athletic ability rarely found in a sturdy 6-foot, 233-pound frame. He was timed in 4.40 seconds for the 40-yard dash, exhibited a 41-inch vertical leap, and bench-pressed 225 pounds 29 times.

Since then, he has worked hand-in-hand with Roc Nation to establish his brand and appear on pre-draft shows on ESPN. But on Thursday night, it will boil down to football. Barkley is considered by many to be the best running back to come out of college in the last 10 to 20 years.

NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock recently told Paul Domowitch of the Inquirer and Daily News that he had Barkley rated higher at running back than three recent top-10 draft picks — Ezekiel Elliott, Leonard Fournette and Todd Gurley — and called him "as clean off the field as anybody in the draft."

"The bottom line is his lower-body strength and explosion are off the charts, which means his contact balance is, also," Mayock said. "He can catch the ball. He can pass-protect. He's a three-down back who can do it all."

Barkley rushed for 1,271 yards last season and finished his career at Penn State with 3,843, second in program history. He accounted for 23 touchdowns – 18 rushing, three receiving, two on kickoff returns — in 2017, when he finished second in the nation in all-purpose yards with 2,239.

What also has impressed NFL executives and scouts about Barkley is his humble demeanor. In his statement announcing that he would move on to the NFL, he thanked Penn State and said, "I will continue to work each and every day to continue to represent Penn State the right way as I move on to the next phase of my life." Nittany Lions coach James Franklin called him a "once-in-a-lifetime player" who has grown "into a fantastic young man."

As for the draft, there has been buzz that the Giants, picking second, might try to surround quarterback Eli Manning with talented offensive players to make another run at a Super Bowl, and thus will take Barkley over any of the available quarterbacks. But the Browns could pluck him with either of their two top-four picks, or the quarterback-needy Jets might decide to call his name at No. 3.

Barkley says it makes no difference to him.

"Any team that drafts me, I'm going to be appreciative because it's a dream come true," he said. "I've been wanting to play in the NFL since I was a little kid."

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