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John McGonigal | Centre Daily Times | September 13, 2017

Saquon Barkley was always going to be Penn State's kick returner

  James Franklin wants Saquon Barkley (right) to touch the ball as much as possible.

UNIVERSITY PARK — Everyone outside the Lasch Football Building entered Week 1 of Penn State's 2017 season under the impression that Miles Sanders was the Nittany Lions' No. 1 kickoff returner.

But everyone inside Lasch knew that wasn't the case.

Saquon Barkley was always Penn State's No. 1 returnman. James Franklin just wanted to keep it a secret.

"I didn't want that on the depth chart because I didn't want people scheming and kicking it away from him," Franklin said at his Tuesday press conference. "That's the reality of it. Our team and Saquon have known he's the starting kickoff return guy from the beginning."

Franklin said the thought of having Barkley return kicks was discussed and researched throughout the offseason.

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One case Franklin studied was that of former Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey. A 2017 first-round pick by the Carolina Panthers, McCaffrey returned 37 kickoffs for 1,070 yards (28.9 yards per attempt) when he broke the FBS all-purpose yards mark and was a Heisman Trophy runner-up in 2015.

Barkley has the same potential.

"Saquon Barkley is one of the more explosive players, if not the most explosive player, in the country when the ball is in his hands," Franklin added. "This is a way for us to pretty much guarantee that he gets the ball."

Simply putting Barkley back there doesn't ensure dynamic results. The junior had a 32-yard gain against Pitt on Saturday, but Franklin believes the return team's blocking can improve and so can Barkley.

Of course, teams could choose to avoid the Heisman candidate by kicking it short.

That's where Koa Farmer comes in. The linebacker -- who will serve as the up-back in front of Barkley -- was Penn State's leading returnman in 2015 (22.5 yards average on 18 attempts).

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"I'm a retired kickoff returner," Farmer said Tuesday with a smile. "I think when 26 is back there, I mean, I wouldn't want to kick it to him. ... I always tell Coach (Charles) Huff, 'If I take it back, you'd better put me back on kickoff return.'"

Whether it's Barkley being tested or Farmer getting his chance, Franklin believes it's a win-win. It's designed to give Penn State's offense better field position.

Penn State's coach is comfortable with that even though it means exposing Barkley to situations outside of what made him a Heisman contender.

"I think there's a lot of value in it," Franklin said. "We feel good about it."

This article is written by John McGonigal from Centre Daily Times and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to

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