Saquon Barkley named Big Ten’s top offensive player, running back, returner

By Derek Levarse - [email protected]
Saquon Barkley became the third player in Big Ten history to repeat as the conference’s Offensive Player of the Year on Thursday. - Chris Knight | AP photo

Walking through Penn State’s Lasch Building headquarters, it’s hard to miss the wall.

In a long hallway that connects the front lobby to the back lobby, pictures of dozens of Nittany Lion greats line the gray tiles from All-Americans to award winners.

It stood out to Saquon Barkley before he ever played a snap for the Lions.

“When you’re a recruit and you come here to the school, you set goals,” Barkley said. “And that’s a goal I wanted to set — to be on that wall. And I’m able to do that.”

Penn State’s star running back made the comment in a taped interview with the Big Ten Network after another day of filling both his trophy case and his personal record book.

Barkley hauled in three major Big Ten awards on Thursday, winning the Graham-George Offensive Player of the Year, Ameche-Dayne Running Back of the Year and Rodgers-Dwight Return Specialist of the Year trophies. It’s the second straight year he was named the conference’s top offensive player and running back.

Apart from winning all three of the league honors that he was eligible for, Barkley became the first running back in Big Ten history to be named Offensive Player of the Year twice. He’s the third overall to accomplish the feat, joining Purdue’s Drew Brees (1998, 2000) and Ohio State’s Braxton Miller (2012, 2013).

Prior to Barkley, Penn State had only earned Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year honors three times since joining the conference in 1993 — Kerry Collins (1994), Curtis Enis (1997) and Michael Robinson (2005).

“It’s just an honor to even be mentioned in the same category as those guys,” Barkley said.

Barkley is the first Penn State player to win Return Specialist of the Year, a new award that was established in 2015.

The junior said he got word of his victories from Lions coach James Franklin, who told him how proud he was of his accomplishments.

“It’s just awesome because I was fortunate enough to win two of those awards last year and get a picture on the wall at Penn State,” Barkley said. “That’s something where you leave your legacy, and that’s going to be there forever. No one will ever be able to take that away from you.

“To be able to win two of those awards again and add another one, to be able to add another picture there, that’s special.”

Barkley is still a finalist for four national trophies, including two recognizing the nation’s top player — the Maxwell Award and the Walter Camp Award. He is also a finalist for the Doak Walker Award as the country’s top running back and the Pail Hornung Award as the nation’s most versatile player.

In addition, he is a finalist for the Chicago Tribune’s Silver Football Award, given to the Big Ten’s best player, as voted on by conference coaches.

Of course, there’s one more finalist list left to go. The Heisman Trophy will give out invitations to its ceremony on Monday.

“It would be special to be invited to New York,” Barkley said. “Obviously. it’s the Heisman Trophy, probably the most prestigious award in all of sports. So it’ll be special if I got invited. I’d be representing Penn State. I’d be representing my family and myself, so that’ll also be cool.

“But at the end of the day, if I didn’t get invited, I wouldn’t lose sleep over it. I don’t really live on awards. I’m just so happy and fortunate that I’m able to come to my facility and have a group of guys I’m able to play with one more time.”

Gesicki edged out

While many of the Big Ten awards were easy to predict, one that seemed very much up in the air was the Kwalick-Clark Tight End of the Year trophy.

Two of the three finalists for the Mackey Award, given to the nation’s top tight end, hail from the Big Ten in Penn State’s Mike Gesicki and Wisconsin’s Troy Fumagalli. And the pair split first-team All-Big Ten honors on Wednesday, with Gesicki getting the nod from the media and Fumagalli from the coaches.

But it was Fumagalli who took home the trophy. Gesicki had better receiving numbers than Fumagalli across the board — 51 catches to 38, 501 yards to 471 and nine touchdowns to four — but the coaches favored the Badgers standout as the better all-around player, as Gesicki has long worked on improving his blocking.

Gesicki did manage to break a handful of Lions career records by a tight end that were previously owned by one of the trophy’s namesakes, former Penn State star Ted Kwalick.

Penn State’s Trace McSorley and Blake Gillikin were edged for Quarterback of the Year and Punter of the Year, respectively, by Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett and Rutgers’ Ryan Anderson. Both results were expected after the Lions standouts were named second-team All-Big Ten selections this week behind Barrett and Anderson.

The conference’s other big winner on Thursday was Iowa’s Josey Jewell, who was named Defensive Player of the Year and Linebacker of the Year. Hawkeyes teammate Josh Jackson won Defensive Back of the Year.

Undefeated Wisconsin was well-represented. Aside from Fumagalli, running back Jonathan Taylor was named Freshman of the Year while Paul Chryst won both Coach of the Year votes from the media and his peers. Chryst split those honors last season with Franklin.

Rounding out the award-winners were Ohio State’s Billy Price (Offensive Lineman of the Year) and Nick Bosa (Defensive Lineman of the Year), Maryland’s D.J. Moore (Receiver of the Year), and Indiana’s Griffin Oakes (Kicker of the Year).

Saquon Barkley became the third player in Big Ten history to repeat as the conference’s Offensive Player of the Year on Thursday. Barkley became the third player in Big Ten history to repeat as the conference’s Offensive Player of the Year on Thursday. Chris Knight | AP photo

By Derek Levarse

[email protected]

Reach Derek Levarse at 570-991-6396 or on Twitter @TLdlevarse

Reach Derek Levarse at 570-991-6396 or on Twitter @TLdlevarse