While most of the world is waiting to see what Saquon Barkley will do when he gets the ball in his hands in an actual NFL game, at least one person in the Giants’ organization has more anticipation about what the rookie will do when he doesn’t.
Running backs coach Craig Johnson is serving as the grounding wire for the complex circuitry that is Saquon, keeping the second overall pick tethered to reality while the expectations around him explode like fireworks.
He’s also charged with teaching Barkley the finer details required to be an NFL running back. Therefore, Johnson is not focusing on that first carry or that first reception or even the first touchdown Barkley will score. He’s excited about . . . the first blitz pickup.
“I’m sure what teams are going to do is they’re going to test him right down the middle and find out what he can do,” Johnson said Sunday at Giants training camp. “That’s part of the process: How am I going to handle it when the linebacker does that? All young players have to go through that.”
Johnson is confident that Barkley will be able to handle it. He said he was well-trained in pass protection at Penn State and grasps blocking concepts. He also has a 233-pound frame that can come in handy when it’s time to connect with a pass rusher.
In just a few practices, he’s shown an intuition and a willingness to step into those crucial blocks, but he still has to show other teams he can do it. Otherwise, they’ll simply send defenders through the gaps and muck up the offense, or Barkley will not be able to be on the field.
As for the times when Barkley does have the ball, whether on a run or a pass play, Johnson said he’s trying to rein in Barkley’s expectations. In college, he could take any play 80 yards for a touchdown, hurdle defenders, shake them out of their spats and dominate. In the NFL, those opportunities still may be there — hey, he is the second overall pick — but they will be fewer. Enter Johnson, dialing Barkley back a bit.
“The biggest thing is don’t try to do too much every play,” Johnson said of his advice to Barkley. “People outside are going to say they’re looking for a superstar who is going to have explosion plays and go down the field and do all this. Don’t worry. Just handle what you get, make sure you get a positive gain on every play. The big plays will come.”
Johnson noted that a 3- or 4-yard gain often will set up a much longer one, while straining for extra yardage that isn’t there often can lead to lapses in ball security.
“When you go for big plays all the time,” Johnson said, “sometimes you have big mess-ups.”
In the NFL, avoiding the latter is just as important as cultivating the former.