To those Penn State fans anxious that Saquon Barkley is returning kickoffs, his primary position coach says, “Relax.”
Charles Huff, who coaches Penn State’s running backs and special teams, said that Barkley faces no more threat of injury returning a kickoff than he does running a speed sweep on offense. In fact, asked what he considers the most common football misconception among fans, Huff chuckled.
“That Saquon may get hurt on kickoff returns because kickoff is an alleged dangerous play,” Huff said on a conference call Thursday. “Those coaches who do football research, the returner is probably the safest player, outside the kicker, on the kickoff return team, because he’s not blocking anybody. No one’s trying to run through him, and 90 percent of the time when you go to tackle him, you’ve broken down and you’re tackling him just like you would if he ran inside zone.
“But for some reason, people think that there’s missiles running down there that are going to hit right in the middle of a tank and blow the tank up. We laugh all the time when people say that. Now, don’t get me wrong, the guys blocking for him? Yeah, there are some times when there are very high-end collisions. But for the returner, nobody’s running down and getting a wide open shot on the kick returner. Doesn’t happen.”
During the preseason, Barkley asked head coach James Franklin for a chance to become the team’s primary kickoff returner. Miles Sanders handled the role last year, when Barkley returned three kickoffs. Huff said that the coaches planned for Barkley to return kicks in 5-6 other games, but situations didn’t allow for it.
This year, Barkley won the role as No. 1 kickoff returner but was listed early as third on the depth chart. Franklin later admitted that he did so to prevent opposing teams from kicking away from Barkley.
Barkley didn’t return his first kick until the third quarter against Akron, when Penn State led 35-0. Some fans wondered whether that was risky. Huff assured that he didn’t believe it was.
“The misconception that the injury level goes way up because he’s on kick return, well, the injury level goes way up when he’s walking to class,” Huff said. “… We’re not idiots. The amount of reps on the body is the amount of reps on the body. But the fact that, ‘Oh, because he’s a kick returner, he’s going to get hurt,’ well, he could get hurt on a speed sweep.”
Ultimately, Huff said, Barkley returns kicks because he’s the team’s best player with the ball.
“If you’re going to give him three speed sweeps, you might as well give him two speed sweeps and a kickoff return,” Huff said. “On one of those carries, we know Saquon is going to do something that hits Twitter.”