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Penn State running back Miles Sanders has become a leader on and off the field for Nittany Lions

The junior running back, who sat behind Saquon Barkley for two years, reached the 1,000-yard plateau for a season last week.

Penn State running back Miles Sanders (24) and his teammates celebrate a 30-24 win against Iowa with the student section at Beaver Stadium on Oct. 27.
Penn State running back Miles Sanders (24) and his teammates celebrate a 30-24 win against Iowa with the student section at Beaver Stadium on Oct. 27.Read moreABBY DREY / TNS

Miles Sanders didn't have too many goals for the 2018 season. He said his three primary ones were rushing for 1,000 yards, doing whatever he could to help his team win, and winning a national championship.

Well, two out of three weren't bad. Sanders reached the 1,000-yard milestone last weekend against Wisconsin, finishing the day with 1,007 yards, and can add to that total Saturday against Rutgers and a rushing defense that ranks next-to-last in the Big Ten.

Sanders, a junior from Pittsburgh, rushed for 159 yards against the Badgers, his fourth 100-yard performance of the season. After sitting behind Saquon Barkley for his first two seasons, he has emerged as one of the Big Ten's top running backs, someone who has also gotten better at pass protection and catching the ball out of the backfield.

"I'm pretty confident and happy with my performance this year and trying to do whatever I can to help the team win," he said. "I think I've been catching the ball out of the backfield pretty well. That's what I tried to practice in the offseason, that and seeing blitzes and doing good with blocking."

Ja'Juan Seider, who is in his first season as Penn State running backs coach, said he believes Sanders is "ahead of where I thought he would be right now."

"I'll say this: I think Miles is playing as good as any running back in the country," he said. "The schemes are different at certain places where guys are allowed to run the ball 30 times a game. But for a kid to average what he's been averaging, six yards a carry, that tells you a lot about him as a player and where he's going with his future."

One area of improvement on the team is tackles for losses on rushing plays. Head coach James Franklin said the Nittany Lions have gone from 111th in the nation last season to 23rd this season in percentage of rushing plays that lose yardage, and Sanders is proud of that progress.

"I try to take that really serious; I never want to lose yards and hurt the offense," said Sanders, who has been tackled for a loss five times in his last 79 carries. "So it's good to try to take the tough two yards, the tough three yards, and then just being patient and then hopefully, when it's there hit it and get bigger yards."

Sanders also has come forward as a leader on the offense, joining quarterback Trace McSorley and other veterans on the unit.

"I've just been so impressed with his overall development," Franklin said. "The type of teammate he is, the type of leader he has really grown into, how thoughtful he is. How supportive he is, not just when things are going well but when times get tough. He's been really good. I see him take an active role with our offensive line, loving those guys up as well."

Early in the week preceding the Wisconsin game, Sanders and the other running backs met with members of the offensive line to tell them, despite poor production against Michigan, they remained confident.

The pep talk worked and the rushing attack had one of its best games of the year against the Badgers. Sanders was quick to praise the linemen.

"Thanks to the O-line, got to thank them. It started with them, so it was a really good day," he said.

McSorley honored

Trace McSorley was named a semifinalist for the Walter Camp Award, given to the nation's outstanding player, and for the Jason Witten man of the year honor to a player who shows distinguished leadership. McSorley and punter Blake Gillikin also received CoSIDA all-academic honors in District 2.