Miles Sanders, Saquon Barkley Take Rivalry and Friendship to Next Level

Ed Kracz

PHILADELPHIA - Penn State University has become well-known as Linebacker U, but that image may be changing, thanks to Miles Sanders and Saquon Barkley.

The two running backs will start in the backfield for their respective teams on Monday night; Sanders with the Eagles, Barkley with the New York Giants.

“It’s RBU (Running Back University), that’s all I can say,” said Sanders following Friday’s practice. “It’s RBU. Anybody considering Penn State as a running back, come. They going to eat and they’re going to get here (to the NFL).”

Barkley was the NFL’s rookie of the year a season ago. Sanders should be in the conversation for that award this season, but he won’t win it.

Sanders rushed for a career-high 83 yards on 17 carries (4.9 yards per carry) in last week’s loss to the Miami Dolphins. He added a career-high five receptions and a 15-yard touchdown to finish the game with 105 scrimmage yards, which marked his third career game with 100-plus yards on offense.

Now with 1,193 scrimmage yards, Sanders has passed his running backs coach Duce Staley (1,190 in 1997) for fifth-most all-purpose yards in Eagles rookie history and he has moved past Charle Young in 1973 for third-most scrimmage yards in franchise history.

Sanders is second in the NFL in all-purpose yards for a rookie behind Oakland’s Josh Jacobs (1,207).

“When he first touched campus, just the little things, like drills that we would do, 7-on-7s, the way he’d catch the ball, you knew from the start that he was going to be a tremendous player,” said Barkley on a conference call with Eagles reporters earlier in the week.

Barkley and Sanders became good friends while at Penn State, when Sanders arrived on campus as a five-star recruit and Barkley was coming off a successful freshman season with the Nittany Lions.

They FaceTime during the season, and even did so this week leading up to the first game between their teams, two old NFC East rivals.

“I wasn’t going to just allow a five-star recruit to come in and take my job,” said Barkley. “I knew that (Penn State) obviously had envisioned a role for him, so we just competed the whole time, but in a friendly way.

"I remember we were out there doing sprints one time after a workout, that was just me and him, working on speed, working on sprints, going against each other, just doing little things.

“Even though there was always that competition to be that starting back, and be that back, it was always out of love. And just that respect we had for each other’s talent, is what made that friendship grow even stronger.”

Barkley knew the talent that Sanders possessed.

The Giants back recalled his final season at Penn State. It was Senior Night, and he was a junior. Nebraska was coming to Happy Valley, but Barkley was struggling with a back injury and spent the week in the training room, not on the practice field.

"I remember thinking, 'I can’t not play, because if I don’t play, the world is going to see what this guy can do already, and it’s not my time to leave,’" said Barkley. "I kind of didn’t force myself, but that was in the back of my mind, get back early so (I) can finish off the season strong, and let him go do his thing next year."

Sanders remembered that game, too.

"Everybody was getting me ready like I was going to be starting,” said Sanders. “I didn’t tell nobody. I didn’t tell my family because you never know, that’s Superman over there. He gets the start and he takes one 60 yards. I’m like, ‘Yeah his back’s fine.’”

While Sanders said he is looking forward to seeing Barkley, he has other things to worry about.

“I remember talking about this even before the season started when I was just guessing on who I’d end up being with (in the draft) and I said if I end up with the Eagles we’re going to see each other twice a year, that’s special,” said Sanders. “But at the end of the day, I’d be pretty selfish saying I’m focused on Saquon.

“I’m focused on getting this W because we have some stuff to handle. We have a future ahead of us, just depending on what we do these last four weeks, so we have to handle business. It’s going to be fun, but I’m also focused on something else, too.”

That something else is a four-game winning streak.

If the Eagles win all four of their remaining games they will win the NFC East and host a wild-card playoff game.

“To be in the playoffs my rookie year I think that would be pretty special,” said Sanders. “That’s really what I’m focusing on, but it will definitely be fun playing against Saquon, don’t’ get me wrong.”

Added Barkley: “It’s not like a quarterback-quarterback matchup. Running back vs. running backs matchup, a lot of things indicate who has the better game. I’m not too focused on outrushing Miles.

"He’s one of my really good friends. I wish nothing but the best for him, just a healthy game, a healthy rest of the season and rest of career. My main focus is going out there and trying to do whatever I can to help my team.”

With both running backs entrenched in their teams’ backfields for the foreseeable future, this is a running back rivalry that could really blossom over the next few years.