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Saquon Barkley placeholders Devontae Booker, Corey Clement try to make most of opportunity

New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley, left,

New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley, left, runs a drill at training camp, Wednesday, July 28, 2021, in East Rutherford, N.J. Credit: AP/Corey Sipkin

Day One of training camp practices saw Devontae Booker and Corey Clement receive the bulk of the reps at running back for the Giants.

Whether that remains the case come Day One of the regular season remains anyone’s guess.

That’s because the player the Giants would love to have handling a full workload at the position by the time they get to Sept. 12 against the Broncos is currently in ligament limbo. Saquon Barkley remains on the physically unable to perform list (PUP), recovering from a torn ACL he suffered last September, and while he can be activated from that designation at any point this preseason, no one can say for certain when that might happen.

Until it does, it will be Booker and Clement and a few others taking the handoffs in practices, preseason games, and, yes, possibly into the regular season.

All of which puts Booker and Clement in odd positions this summer. In one regard they are placeholders, the extras who rush in to fill the seats of the stars who get up to use the restroom during the Oscar ceremonies. On the other hand, they could become important focal points of the offense once the games start counting for real.

Barkley, you see, isn’t the only one in limbo. The whole position group is uncertain about what will happen.

"I can only control what I control so I’m going to continue to go out there each day and work my [butt] off and do all the little things that the coaches need me to do," Booker said on Wednesday after his first day atop the running back depth chart, knowing he will keep that perch only until Barkley returns. "If my number is called," he said of the potential to continue his role into September, "we’ll just see what happens."

Clement was just as laissez faire.

"This is not new to me, getting the bulk of the carries in training camp and it kind of dies off during the season," he said of starting his career with the Eagles as a backup behind veterans. "That’s football. You might get the most of the bulk, or you might get the least of the bulk, but the name of the game is to make your presence known when you do get that opportunity."

Barkley was working on the sideline and on adjacent fields during Wednesday’s practice, wearing a white hooded sweatshirt and cutoff football pants but with no jersey or helmet in sight. He did some running drills with the trainers, none of which appeared to be full speed. He did not look like a player preparing for an imminent return to action.

The Giants have said as much. They are being patient and taking things slowly with Barkley’s recovery. At the same time, though, they spent the offseason being rather aggressive about preparing contingencies for his possible absence . . . or at least a decreased role in the offense.

They signed Booker very early in free agency, so early that it surprised Booker himself.

"I didn’t think it would happen that quickly, but they go on the phone with my agent and wanted to get something done," Booker said.

Clement arrived after a tryout at rookie minicamp.

"My intentions coming here were to show that I still have a lot left in the tank," he said. "I was more than excited to receive a call from the New York Giants, get a chance to stay within the division, get a chance to still showcase what I’ve got."

He’ll have training camp to do that.

At some point, though, No. 26 is going to trot back onto the field. Barkley is going to return, in some capacity, and reclaim his job as the team’s top running back. In a perfect Giants scenario it will be in time for that regular-season opener, but doubts about that availability compound as each missed practice brings the team one day closer to the regular season.

If Barkley is unable to play, will Booker and Clement and the rest of the crew be able to adequately cover for him? They have the confidence they can.

"You have to have self-love and self-respect," Clement said. "If you don’t, I don’t think you should be on the field."

Ideally, they won’t have to be.

Notes & quotes: The Giants waived TE Kelvin Benjamin, the former wide receiver and first-round pick who had not played in the NFL since 2018 and was attempting a comeback with the team. Benjamin was on the field at the start of Wednesday’s practice but after a conversation with general manager Dave Gettleman and coach Joe Judge during early drills he walked off . . . Will Hernandez said making the move from left guard, where he played most of his NFL career, to right guard is not as challenging as people say it can be. He said he played on the right side throughout high school so he has some familiarity with it. He also said he lost about 20 pounds while training this offseason . . . Some players buy big houses when they sign huge contracts. Defensive lineman Leonard Williams went another route. He said his splurge after inking a three-year, $63 million deal with the Giants this offseason was on a tent. "I’m a big outdoors person," he said of his affinity for hiking and camping. "I buy tents and stuff like that more than I buy nice expensive things."

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