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Budding Penn State star Saquon Barkley downplays growing celebrity

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - When running back Saquon Barkley arrived on Penn State's campus last summer, all he wanted was playing time.

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - When running back Saquon Barkley arrived on Penn State's campus last summer, all he wanted was playing time.

"I really tried to compete with the older guys and get in the playbook early," Barkley said Wednesday night. "I didn't expect to have, like, a 1,000-yard season, but I really wanted to play as a freshman. That was my ultimate goal."

To be exact, Barkley finished the season with 1,076 rushing yards, breaking the university record for single-season rushing yards by a freshman. He topped 100 yards in five games.

He became known for hurdling defenders, most notably in a rainy September game against Buffalo during which Barkley leaped over Buffalo linebacker Nick Gilbo.

That day, after rushing for 115 yards, Barkley said, he really came to believe in his potential.

"The Buffalo game is where I saw I could actually play at this level and I actually could compete at this level," he said. "But I wouldn't say that made me think, 'Oh, I'm the guy. I'm the running back.' "

Barkley might not say it, but others do. Analysts have compared him to the likes of Curt Warner and Larry Johnson, All-American Penn State alumni who went on to careers in the NFL.

"He's pretty special," coach James Franklin said. "I haven't been around too many guys like him."

Barkley's talent isn't confined to the football field. During the offseason, he's impressed in the weight room, showing a combination of speed and strength. Last month during the team's max-out testing, he ran a 4.38 second 40-yard dash, fastest on the team, and became an Internet sensation when he power-cleaned 390 pounds, tying former Lions defensive tackle Anthony Zettel for the program record.

Barkley has seen his fame grow, as well as his mentions on social media. He once saw a video on Instagram a fan took of him on a hoverbroad, which he described as "a little creepy, but funny."

However, he's not letting the fanfare get to his head.

On Wednesday, the 5-11, 219 pounder tugged at the neck of his white No. 26 jersey and acknowledged he was a little nervous for his first media session. Per Penn State football policy, freshmen typically are not allowed to talk with the media during the season.

"The thing I've probably been so impressed with is just how humble he is," Franklin said. "I think for a guy who has gotten a lot of attention in a very short period of time, he's handled it very well."

Others have noticed the same thing, Franklin noted.

"In the player meetings," Franklin said, "with all the guys on the team, a lot of guys commented how he's handled it, how he is on campus, how he is Saturday night, how he is just with his teammates in the locker room."

Barkley described himself as "a normal guy." Like any 19-year-old college student, he likes hanging out with his friends and playing pickup basketball. On Netflix, he just finished watching Narcos, a popular drama about the Medellín drug cartel, and is now re-watching Friday Night Lights.

And the Coplay, Pa., native said he calls his parents, Alibay Barkley and Tonya Johnson, every weekend. They know the spotlight is on him, Barkley said, and they constantly remind him to stay humble and level-headed.

Barkley seems to be heading that advice.

"I'm honored to be compared to some great running backs," he said. "I honestly tried to block that out and be myself, and just try to be a better player every day."