On the second day of 2017, clouds filled the sky above the Rose Bowl, turning one of college football’s most picturesque venues into something, well, normal.
The sun would eventually crack through the clouds, but the explosion of light that annually bathes the early quarters of the game never showed up when USC played Penn State.
Instead, it was a player who shined.
Penn State running back Saquon Barkley terrorized the USC defense in a classic game the Trojans eventually won, 52-49. Sure, USC quarterback Sam Darnold torched Penn State for five touchdowns, but the game’s most spectacular play came via Barkley’s legs — the same pair that could make him one of the top players picked in the 2018 NFL draft.
After busts and periods of avoidance in the first-round of the draft, running backs are back in vogue, thanks to a crop of talented runners who boosted their teams into playoff contention after being selected early in the first round.
The Dallas Cowboys took Ezekiel Elliott fourth in 2016. The Jacksonville Jaguars selected Leonard Fournette fourth, and the Carolina Panthers picked Christian McCaffrey eighth in 2017. All three teams made the playoffs.
Plays like the most iconic one he made in the Rose Bowl have made it a near certainty that Barkley will join that group and be picked in the top 10. If that happens, he will become the fourth back in three years to be picked in the top 10 — further distancing the NFL from a period when only six running backs were top-10 picks in the 10 drafts prior to 2016.
Barkley’s signature Rose Bowl play occurred early in the third quarter, when he took a handoff and broke a tackle in the backfield. He bounded to the right, where he juked his way free. From there, he ran through the arms of a tackler before finding himself surrounded by four USC defenders, all converging on him. He escaped in a blink and cut across the field, making the USC defense look helpless on a 79-yard touchdown run.
“That run,” Barkley said Thursday at the NFL scouting combine, “it was a special run, especially because of the significance of the game and the history behind the Rose Bowl. That run was definitely one of my favorite runs I ever had.”
He followed up the Rose Bowl performance with 21 total touchdowns, 1,271 yards rushing and 632 yards receiving in his junior season before declaring for the draft.
“You sit back and go, ‘Wow. This guy’s just fun to watch,’” Rams general manager Les Snead said. “He did some amazing things.”
Barkley is not the only running back evaluators are excited about.
USC’s Ronald Jones II, who also played in that iconic Rose Bowl, Georgia’s running back duo, Sony Michel and Nick Chubb — 2018 Rose Bowl heroes — and Louisiana State’s Derrius Guice are also possible first-round picks.
“At running back you’re going to see at all levels that you’re going to have some high-end players,” Indianapolis Colts general manager Chris Ballard said. “And I think you’re still going to see some really good players at the running back position come out of this draft third, fourth, fifth, sixth round.”
But no one will be expected to do more — and do it quickly — than Barkley.
Barkley said he’s hopeful he can affect a team similar to how Elliott, who played at Ohio State, helped the Cowboys in 2016, the year after the franchise finished 4-12. Elliott amassed nearly 2,000 yards from scrimmage during a 13-3 season.
That kind of production right away helps Barkley believe he can do it too.
“It gives you a lot of confidence,” Barkley said. “Especially a guy like Ezekiel Elliott. He’s very talented, arguably one of the top five — you could argue number one — running back in the NFL.
“He came from the same division, same conference as I came from in the Big Ten. He had a lot of success in the Big Ten and I was able to have a lot of success in the Big Ten. His game was able to translate to the next level, and I hope the same goes for mine.”
Jones also is out to prove he can be an impact player in the NFL.
The 5-foot-11, 205-pound Jones rushed for 3,619 yards and 39 touchdowns in three seasons for the Trojans. Last season, he ran for 1,550 yards and 19 touchdowns. He eclipsed 100 yards rushing nine times, and amassed 216 yards against Arizona State.
Asked Thursday what he could bring to an NFL team, he was as quick to answer.
“Impact. Dynamic playmaker. I can catch, run, return, line me up wherever,” he said. “I can do it all, just trying to help the team win.”
Jones said he hoped to run the 40-yard-dash in 4.4 seconds to demonstrate his speed.
“I want to make sure teams know I’m an every-down back and I’m working on my strength to get ready for the next level,” he said.
Jones rushed for 55 yards and a touchdown in 20 carries in USC’s Rose Bowl victory over Penn State, which ended on a last-second field goal.
And he chuckled when recalling Barkley’s dominating performance.
“He showed up that game,” Jones said. “He went off.”
It wasn’t the first time, or the last. And if all the scouts and evaluators are right, there’s more to come.
“He’s a special talent now,” Chargers coach Anthony Lynn said. “He can go.”
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