STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – Miles Sanders was teetering. He had committed to Penn State in the summer before his junior year of high school and had reaffirmed that pledge repeatedly the next year. And then Saquon Barkley happened.
Barkley was just some under-the-radar recruit when Sanders, a grade younger, gave the Nittany Lions an oral commitment in July 2014. But two years later, Barkley had one of the more electrifying freshman seasons in school history, and Sanders was wondering if there would be room in the Penn State backfield.
Rival coaches preyed on this uncertainty, and Sanders, considered by most to be the top tailback in his class, began talking to other programs, most notably Michigan State. There were also reports circulating that coach James Franklin was leaving, but Penn State’s plans for its running game were chief in Sanders’ mind when Lions coaches showed up in his Pittsburgh-area living room not long before national signing day.
Joe Moorhead, who grew up near Sanders, had just been hired as offensive coordinator, and Sanders; his mother, Marlene; and mentor, Craig Williams, asked him directly how he envisioned using both tailbacks.
“He was told it was going to be a one-two punch,” Marlene Sanders said recently. “Moorhead had a vision. He was new and he came in with Miles. That was his goal, the one-two punch. I don’t know if it was Franklin’s goal, but it was Moorhead’s. So Miles was expecting a one-two punch.”
It ended up, of course, with Barkley as just one unrelenting force. But to Sanders and his family, a combination of the two would have benefited all parties and Penn State would have delivered on its word.
“We were either going to be a one-two punch or I was going to end up being the official starter,” Sanders said. “That’s all I had in my mind. I wasn’t tripping about not being the starter. One-two punch – that’s a longer career, less hits.”
There was a happy ending, of course. Barkley was so good that he left early. And Sanders, despite two challenging years on and off the field, blossomed when finally given his chance. And the way he patiently bided his time and the less mileage he logged also increased his NFL stock.
The Eagles cited both factors in their decision to select Sanders in the second round of the draft three months ago. In fact, the experience of waiting could assist the rookie. Veteran Jordan Howard was acquired in the offseason, and with Corey Clement and several other running backs also on the roster, Sanders will have to earn his playing time.
He’s already behind, having missed all of spring workouts with a hamstring strain. But with Sanders’ first NFL training camp set to begin Thursday, he has the opportunity to break further from Barkley’s shadow and prove that he could have been, at least, the No. 2 to the now-New York Giant’s No. 1.
“There’s an aspect to Miles to say, ‘I’m my own man, I’m my own player.’ And now he’s got the opportunity to show that,” Franklin said. “If he would have decided to come back this year, I think he would have had the opportunity to really widen that gap and separate himself from Saquon in his legacy at Penn State.
“But obviously the right thing for him and his family was to take the next step, and we were very supportive of that.”
Didn’t sit easy
Sanders, according to his mother, had always planned on playing just three years at Penn State. He told her, she said, the day he committed. But Sanders fell instantly in love with the university, the football program, and the game day atmosphere.
Marlene Sanders was equally sold on those factors, but she also liked that the campus was two hours away – not too far, but far away enough so that her son wouldn’t be compelled to come home and that some of Pittsburgh’s negative influences wouldn’t be compelled to visit him.
“I was worried about the distractions. Friends here getting into stuff,” she said. “I’m like, ‘They have to drive two hours to get to you.’ He was never the type to be in with bad influences, but I was just worried about people latching onto him.”
Pitt had offered early, along with Temple and Toledo. But when Penn State got into the mix, Sanders was sold, even after national powers such as Michigan State, Michigan, Alabama, and LSU joined the fray.
But the Lions held firm. Cornerbacks coach Terry Smith, who had first met Sanders when he was at Temple, was the area scout and the direct contact. And Franklin is an ace closer.
He erred, though, when he waited until the second half to attend one of Sanders’ games at Woodland Hills High because he first watched another Pittsburgh-area recruit.
Sanders had rushed five times and scored four touchdowns before the half against Baldwin, and Woodland Hills coach George Novak had yanked him by the time Franklin and Smith arrived.
“They were like, ‘Why are you on the sidelines?’ ” Sanders said.
Franklin had already secured Sanders’ commitment by that point, but he still had to get him to sign despite Barkley’s emergence.
“There were times during the process where I think he missed the notoriety of being recruited by other schools,” Novak said. “He let some guys talk to him, but nowhere near changing his mind. He liked Penn State. His mom liked it.”
When national signing day arrived, Sanders couldn’t even wait until Woodland Hill hosted a news conference to officially autograph Penn State’s offer. He signed when he first could at 7 a.m. with his mother, according to the now-Wolverines coach Tim Bostard, and went to school afterward.
But it didn’t take long before Sanders had second thoughts about his decision. In the second game of his freshman year, Penn State was on the road at Pitt. But Sanders didn’t play on offense until late and Barkley and two others were the only tailbacks to log carries in a shootout loss.
The touches marginally increased in the next several games, but Sanders had developed a fumbling problem.
“He wanted to prove to everyone what he could do, but he couldn’t get outside his head,” Marlene Sanders said. “When you’re playing the first Pitt game and they waited till four minutes left in the fourth quarter to put you in, and that’s your hometown, I could just see his whole body language on the sideline.”
Miles would turn around and his mother would mouth the words pick your face up. He didn’t always want to be bothered, but Marlene was there after every game waiting for him and would become his closest confidant as he entertained thoughts of transferring.
Barkley, meanwhile, was exploding and delivering highlight-reel plays on a weekly basis. Sanders would bust out the occasional long run when given the chance, but the mistakes persisted, and he would be back on the bench.
“In my opinion, he was just as good as Saquon,” Williams said. “You can never tell putting somebody in one play and then he doesn’t play for another 50 carries. You can’t really see his natural talents. And that’s not to take anything away from Saquon. But if you got two great running backs, there’s no telling what the team could do.
“Miles felt like he was lied to and that didn’t sit easy with him.”
When Franklin was asked about Sanders’ early struggles, he spoke about the difficult transition that players encounter when they make the jump to college, even for five-star recruits. Many come in with high expectations only to have them thwarted by a new reality.
“We’re not one of these programs that makes a bunch of promises and sells a dream,” Franklin said. “We talk about the journey and the process it’s going to take to be successful. And, yeah, there’s some projections you make there about, ‘Hey, we expect you guys to be the one-two punch.’ … But at the end of the day, it comes down to once you get on campus and what you do and how you produce.”
Franklin said there were discussions with Sanders and his family about that process. But he said transferring was never “an issue or a challenge.”
Sanders’ playing time actually decreased during his sophomore season, as Barkley became the full-time kick returner and Penn State seemingly showcased him for Heisman voters. But Sanders could see the light at the end of the 2017 season.
“It started getting frustrating, just thinking I could have been somewhere else, I thought about that a little bit. But I didn’t want to transfer,” Sanders said. “That was a sign of giving up to me. I’m not afraid of competition. I came here and I knew he was here.”
Former Penn State teammates Shareef Miller and Ryan Bates, who are also now Eagles, spoke about the intensity of the running back competition during practices. Barkley has credited Sanders with pushing him. Sanders stopped worrying about what he couldn’t control and took advantage of his surroundings.
“He took everything in. He didn’t step back. Most kids his age would have stepped back and quit,” said Larry Whiteherse, Sanders’ high school running back coach. “They would have said, ‘Well, I’m never going to play. I’ll take the low road.’
“Nope. He hopped right on Saquon’s back and was right with him and learned a lot.”
Sacrifice and determination
In his first game post-Barkley, Sanders ran for 91 yards and two touchdowns. And a week later, at Pitt, he topped 100 yards rushing for the first time in his collegiate career as the Lions whipped the Panthers, 51-6.
Penn State didn’t win as much as it had the previous two seasons, and ball security remained a problem for Sanders. But he delivered upon expectations and finished the season with 1,274 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground.
“It was his time and he knew it,” Franklin said. “He’d done everything right. The coaching staff knew it. His teammates knew it. … And it goes back to those three years of hard work and sacrifice and determination."
“There was no doubt in our minds that he was going to have a significant year, and if he came back, maybe he would have been the best running back in college football.”
But Sanders’ success only reaffirmed his long-ago declaration to his mother that he would leave after three seasons. He was still raw as a receiver and pass blocker, but there would likely be more risk than reward for staying another year.
“The [offensive] line was not the greatest. Everybody saw that,” Marlene Sanders said. “And he was like, ‘Mom, I can’t take all this beating on my body. I might as well go take my chances. Unless this line gets any better, I could be hurting myself waiting for my fourth year.’ ”
Sanders immediately addressed the perceived weakness of his receiving. He caught pass after pass from Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley, who was also preparing for the draft, and if he wasn’t around, he worked with the throwing machine. Sanders also spent significant time watching film of dual-threat NFL running backs such as Alvin Kamara and Tarik Cohen.
He posted strong combine numbers in the 40-yard dash (4.49 seconds) and in other measurables, but Sanders also eased concerns about his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield.
“To his credit, I thought … the thing he improved as much as anybody I’ve seen since the end of the season to the beginning of the combine [was] his work running routes, catching balls,” Franklin said. “His pro day workout was fantastic.”
Several Eagles scouts, including Andy Weidl and Tom Donahoe, who had ties to Pittsburgh, had been following Sanders’ career since his Woodland Hills days. Donahoe had known Novak for years and peppered him with questions. Northeast-area scout Jim Ward planted himself on Penn State’s campus.
Sanders was one of the Eagles’ 30 predraft visits. His mother said the Bears and the Panthers, who had called during the first round of the draft, had shown the most overt interest.
But the Eagles had set their sights on Sanders. General manager Howie Roseman said he walked into running backs coach Duce Staley’s office before the start of the second round and joked about Sanders’ still being on the board when they picked at No. 53.
“We didn’t think he was going to be there,” Staley said. “I didn’t anyway.”
Sanders and about 150 family members and friends had gathered for a draft party at the Dave & Buster’s not far from the eastern Pittsburgh suburbs where he was raised. He put on a brave front, but his mother could tell he was nervous.
“He didn’t eat all day, and he’s an eater,” Marlene Sanders said. “But when he got the call from the Eagles, he broke down in tears. And I forgot he was mic’d up, and I was crying, so they heard me cry.”
Sanders, who had set the goal of reaching the NFL as far back as his youth football day with the Swissvalle Golden Flashes, had beaten the odds. He had overcome, with the help of many, most significantly his mother, the travails of sitting behind Barkley.
Penn State’s "one-two punch” sales pitch is now an inside family joke in the Sanders family. Miles’ brothers, Brian and Kobe, laugh about it now.
Ultimately, waiting may have been a blessing. Sanders isn’t as close to Pittsburgh as he was at Penn State, but his half-sister, Ashley, lives in Cheltenham and his girlfriend is from West Philadelphia.
And Marlene, who is a property manager for Allegheny Public Housing, is only a short flight or car ride away. Miles bought her a red Lexus GX for Mother’s Day, but he doesn’t have plans to move her out.
“I’m going to have a bedroom for her, but I’ve been waiting my whole life to move out,” Sanders said with a laugh. “Maybe if I make it to my second contract.”