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Ex-Penn State star Saquon Barkley already making Giant mark

| Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2018, 11:12 p.m.
The Giants’ Saquon Barkley runs for a touchdown against the Panthers in the second half Sunday, Oct. 7, 2018.
The Giants’ Saquon Barkley runs for a touchdown against the Panthers in the second half Sunday, Oct. 7, 2018.

When Roger Goodell stepped to the podium in Dallas on April 26 and announced Saquon Barkley was taken by the New York Giants with the No. 2 pick in the NFL Draft, Barkley’s fans in the Coplay American Club yelled in delight.

A few seconds later, things quieted when a certain realization set in.

As a Giant, Barkley would be playing against the Philadelphia Eagles twice per season.

Having arguably the area’s most beloved NFL player going against the area’s most beloved team makes for plenty of mixed emotions, the kind likely to be felt across the region Thursday night when the Eagles visit Barkley’s team at MetLife Stadium.

Many Barkley/Eagles fans are probably hoping for the former Whitehall High and Penn State standout to add to his solid start in the NFL while also hoping the Eagles find a way to snap their two-game losing streak with a win in their first NFC East game of the season.

Certainly, Barkley has the attention of the Eagles defense.

“He’s a dynamic player, used in many ways on that offense,” linebacker Jordan Hicks said. “A strong runner, physical, can make every cut, has (great) hands. He’s extremely dynamic, and if you lose him for one second, he’s breaking a huge run or a huge catch. So we’ve got to contain him, we’ve got to obviously account for him in every situation.”

Said defensive end Michael Bennett: “He reminds me of a couple running backs. He has shiftiness and quick feet like Marshawn Lynch, but he has balance like LeSean McCoy and has speed like Jamaal Charles. So he’s really a great combination of a running back.”

While some in New York still believe the Giants should have used the No. 2 pick on a quarterback considering the continuing struggles of Eli Manning, Barkley hasn’t disappointed.

According to NFL.com, he is the third first-year player in the Super Bowl era to have 100 or more yards from scrimmage in the first five games of his career, joining Kareem Hunt (seven games in 2017) and Adrian Peterson (five games, 2007).

Barkley also is one of four running backs with 300-plus yards rushing and 200-plus yards receiving through five weeks. The Rams’ Todd Gurley, the Chargers’ Melvin Gordon and the Steelers’ James Conner are the others.

More than the highlight-film plays or the impressive stats he has produced, Barkley’s poise and ability to adapt to the New York limelight have provided a calming presence in a locker room that always seems about to burst.

Certainly, first-year coach Pat Shurmur, who probably has about had it with all of the Odell Beckham Jr. drama, appreciates Barkley’s maturity.

Shurmur said he spent time with Barkley on the plane ride back from Charlotte after the Giants’ heartbreaking 33-31 loss Sunday on a 63-yard field goal.

“I really think some of your younger players can be your best leaders,” Shurmur said. “In the case of Saquon, he’s doing everything that you would want to see as a coach. He’s a lot like Carson Wentz. He displays humility. He says the right thing, but when he says it, and you all write about it and report on it, don’t you sense a genuine nature to what he says?”

Shurmur sees something special in Barkley beyond what he does on the field.

“You’ve got a genuine, competitive guy that can do really great things on the football field, and so those guys can lead naturally by just being themselves,” said Shurmur, a former Eagles offensive coordinator. “If Saquon comes in every day and becomes the best version of Saquon he can become, and he sticks to those principles and that integrity, then, of course, he’ll be a terrific leader. He already has established himself that way.”

Barkley said he had a goal to become a leader. Five games in, he has certainly made a lot of progress.

“That’s something I wanted to do as a goal of mine, but I know you can’t just take on that role from day one,” he said. “You’ve got to grow into that role and earn the respect of your teammates, and that’s something I’m going to continue to try to do every single day.”

Part of being a leader is keeping a team up when it’s down. At Penn State, Barkley’s teams were a combined 22-5 the last two years, so losing this often and this early in a season might seem foreign to him.

But he’s handling that like he has handled everything else — with poise, patience and a sense of optimism.

“It’s not frustrating. It’s not shocking,” he said. “At the end of the day, I think everyone’s goal is to win a Super Bowl, and that’s still in play. Everything we want in our season is still there.

“I’ve been saying from Day 1 since I got here that I believe in this offense. I believe in this team. I believe in the coaching staff, and I believe the sky’s the limit. It wasn’t going to be pretty from Day 1. We wouldn’t want it that way anyway. We’ve got to keep growing.”

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