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Penn State’s Miles Sanders ready to replace Saquon Barkley as No. 1 running back

The junior, the No. 1 high school running back in the country when he signed with the Nittany Lions, sat behind Saquon Barkley for two years. His position coach said, "He doesn't have to prove anything. All he has to do is be Miles,"

Penn State running back Miles Sanders (24) runs against Washington during the second half of the Fiesta Bowl NCAA college football game, Saturday, Dec. 30, 2017.
Penn State running back Miles Sanders (24) runs against Washington during the second half of the Fiesta Bowl NCAA college football game, Saturday, Dec. 30, 2017.Read moreROSS D. FRANKLIN / AP

Miles Sanders is now the featured running back at Penn State. He is not Saquon Barkley, a force of nature who gave the Nittany Lions three years of highlight-reel plays while spectators in the stadium and in front of their televisions watched breathlessly.

The outside expectations for Sanders may be high, maybe even unreasonable, and that's where Ja'Juan Seider comes in. Seider is Penn State's first-year running backs coach, a position he held at Florida and West Virginia for the last five years, and he doesn't want Sanders putting pressure on himself.

"I think that's the problem, he doesn't have to prove anything," Seider said Thursday on a conference call with reporters. "All he has to do is be Miles. Miles was the No. 1 [high school] back three years ago for a reason.

"I keep reminding him, 'This is your time now. It wasn't like you were a bad player before, you were just behind arguably the greatest running back to play at Penn State, or one of them, and sometimes it's a process where you have to wait your turn.'

"So it's now his time to insert himself to be who he is as a player and as a person. Don't try to live up to Saquon's standards. Go make your own standards and play within the system. At the end of the season, who knows what we'll be saying about Miles?"

As a backup the last two seasons, the 5-11, 207-pound Sanders, of Pittsburgh, carried 56 times for 375 yards, a 6.7-yard average, and three touchdowns, and caught eight passes for the same average. He returned 38 kickoffs, 33 as a freshman.

If there was one minor flaw with Barkley early in his career, it was his desire to break every run for a touchdown and sometimes lose yardage in trying to do so. Seider said he has cautioned Sanders about striving for the big play on every carry.

"He's going to be inserted into a role where right now he's the guy," he said. "So now he can maybe put some nerves to ease and not feel like he's got to create a big play on every play, because with limited reps you're always trying to force something.

"Now he can let the game kind of settle in to him and really kind of take over a game, get into a rhythm and flow and understand it's OK to have a 4-yard run here and there – it might set up a 50-60-yard run later – instead of trying to create a big play."

Seider said getting Sanders into a rhythm will be important, although he realizes he must find the balance between giving him enough work to be effective and not working him too hard to find that rhythm. Sanders' most carries in a game is seven.

"You don't want to make Miles' load so heavy and wear him down," Seider said. "We've got a long season to go and a tough road to go, so it's really just trying to get him going early to assert himself, to kind of be the guy for us going forward, what we think he can be. So I think it's all about a feel thing."

It should be an eventful day for Sanders, who will remember the words that Seider has expressed to everyone in the running backs room in relation to Barkley.

"Don't try to fill his shoes," he told them. "Let's go be the best player we can be. And at the end of the day, let the chips fall where they may."

Appalachian State at Penn State

Saturday, 3:30 p.m., Beaver Stadium, State College

Records: First game of the season for both teams

Coaches: Appalachian State, Scott Satterfield (sixth season, 41-22); Penn State, James Franklin (fifth season, 36-17).

TV/Radio: Big Ten Network; WNTP-AM (990); WNPV-AM (1440)

History: This is the first meeting of the two teams.

Three Things to Watch:

-Penn State needs its new playmakers to identify themselves now that Saquon Barkley, DaeSean Hamilton, and Mike Gesicki have moved on to the NFL. Miles Sanders will get much of the work at running back, his first extended time as a Nittany Lion. Juwan Johnson and DeAndre Thompkins are the top returning receivers, but the interest will be in which young receivers (K.J. Hamler, Mac Hippenhammer, Jahan Dotson) will step up.

-On defense, the Nittany Lions need to deal with the speed of Appalachian State, and in particular senior running back Jalin Moore, who enters the game as the No. 2 career rusher among active FBS players with 3,170 yards. The Mountaineers have a first-time starter at quarterback in sophomore Zac Thomas, marking the first time since the 2014 season that Taylor Lamb hadn't started at the position. How nervous will Thomas be in front of 100,000-plus? It's worth watching.

-And speaking of a loud crowd, this will be a debut under fire for Penn State's new kicker, true freshman Jake Pinegar. Pinegar, the only scholarship player among the four who competed for the job, booted a pair of 60-yard field goals last season at Ankney (Iowa) High School. Head coach James Franklin said that he was very pleased with all his kickers, and that he put them in some rather stressful situations. But nothing says stress like having rows and rows and rows of eyes on you as you line up a crucial kick.

–Joe Juliano