Eagles fans have been pleasantly surprised to see rookie running back Miles Sanders become a playmaker not only on the ground but also in the passing game.
One person who’s not surprised, however, is his former Penn State teammate Saquon Barkley.
“Not at all,” the New York Giants’ Pro Bowl running back said Thursday in a telephone interview. “Miles Sanders is a great worker. He has a great work ethic. He’s always trying to find ways to improve his game.”
Sanders wasn’t asked to pass-block much for the Nittany Lions, and he recorded only 24 catches for 139 yards in his final college season. But Barkley said their position coaches -- first Charles Huff and then Ja’Juan Seider last year, after Barkley had gone to the NFL -- preached the importance of versatility, and Sanders listened.
“Everyone knows where the position of running back is going,” Barkley said. “You have to be able to catch the ball, block, run between and outside the tackles, just kind of be a do-it-all back.
“I think [Sanders] has been showing that so far, and I still think he has so much more to show, and he’s going to continue to get better as the season goes on.”
At 22, Barkley knows a thing or two about starting off a career strong.
After being selected by the Giants with the second overall pick in the 2018 draft, he exploded onto the NFL scene, just as he did when he arrived at Penn State three years earlier. He had one of best rookie seasons in league history, with 261 carries for 1,307 yards and 11 touchdowns, and was named offensive rookie of the year.
This year, in his own rookie season in Philadelphia, Sanders has made an immediate impact. On the ground, he’s averaging 37 yards per game and 4.4 yards per carry. Two weeks ago at Buffalo, he was clocked at nearly 21 mph, according to NFL’s NextGen stats, on a 65-yard touchdown run, the first rushing TD of his career.
And as the wide receivers founder, Sanders has excelled as a pass-catcher. Among the Eagles’ active players, Sanders is averaging the most yards per reception (13.9) and has logged the longest catch, a 45-yarder against the Vikings.
“He’s a very talented individual and that’s being put on display,” said Barkley, who calls or FaceTimes with Sanders once or twice a month to catch up.
Before the two were rising NFL stars, they sat in the same running-back room in State College, learning and pushing each other to be better.
Sanders has said he signed with James Franklin’s Nittany Lions excited and hopeful but also worried that Barkley, who was already turning heads as a freshman, would overshadow him. And for much of the 2016 and 2017 seasons, Sanders watched from the sideline as Barkley become a bona fide star in explosive, defender-hurdling style.
After the 2017 season, Barkley declared for the NFL draft, leaving Penn State with school records for most rushing touchdowns (43), total touchdowns (53), and all-purpose yards (5,538).
In Philadelphia, the 22-year-old Pittsburgh-area native has gotten the attention of coaches and teammates not just for his performance on the field. He puts in meticulous work on his own time, poring over film and taking detailed, handwritten notes about opponents in a personal notebook. When the fumbling problem that plagued him in college seemed to reemerge in Week 3, he put his head down and self-corrected.
“That’s always stressful at the running back position,” said Barkley, who has struggled himself since coming back from an ankle injury that sidelined him in Weeks 4-6. “My advice to him was just stick with it. The game’s going to come to you. Just stay true to who you are.
“Every time you go out there, just be Miles Sanders," he added. "The rest is going to take care of itself.”