Giants running back Saquon Barkley (26) rushes for yardage against...

Giants running back Saquon Barkley (26) rushes for yardage against safety Julian Love (20) during training camp in East Rutherford, N.J., Sunday, August 7, 2022. Credit: Noah K. Murray

For most of his career, Saquon Barkley has had the run of the practice field. He doesn’t wear a red non-contact jersey the way quarterbacks do to warn defenders to keep their distance, but whenever he has stepped onto the grass at the Giants’ team facility during the previous four summers, there has always been an awareness that No. 26 is pretty much off limits.

Sure, there have been drills and reps in which he has wound up on the turf, and teammates have had a chance to give him some healthy thumps over the years, but it was always done with the idea of not injuring Barkley and keeping the star running back healthy for when his carries would count.

Until Sunday.

For what may have been the first time in his tenure with the team, Barkley was tackled on purpose in team drills near the goal line. Then it happened for what may have been the second time. And the third.

In one of the most physical and bruising practices of training camp — in some of the hottest and most humid weather of the summer — the Giants slammed into each other over and over again with live tackling and full-contact blocking. It was about as close to game speed as a team can get in a practice setting, with bodies flying and falling in all directions. And Barkley was right in the middle of it.

Loving it.

“I’m just happy, man, to be out here practicing,” he told after the workout, noting how at this point a year ago he was sidelined and recovering from his torn ACL. “It’s a lot of runs, but all this stuff is going to carry over to the season and get us physically and mentally ready.”

Guard Shane Lemieux said Barkley’s enthusiasm for the full contact was palpable. “You could feel the energy in the huddle with Saquon,” he said. “That’s something that’s really nice to see. Saquon plays with a lot of juice and a lot of fire.”

It was the surest sign yet that Barkley is as physically ready to go as he has been in several years. He took some punishment — such as when 342-pound defensive lineman Justin Ellis plopped down on top of him — but he delivered some hits, too.

“Me and Saquon had a pretty good battle today,” defensive lineman Leonard Williams said. “A lot of competition. There was one time where I split the gap and hit him pretty hard. And then there was the next time I was coming off a block and was too high, and he lowered his pads to my chest.”

The reason for the spirited practice reached back to Friday night, when the team had its Fan Fest scrimmage at MetLife Stadium. While there were plenty of corrections to be made in terms of assignments and decisions, the biggest takeaway for the coaches and players seemed to be that they were not ready for the season in terms of conditioning.

“A lot of guys were telling each other, telling the coaches, ‘We feel like we can be in better shape,’ ” Williams said. “I think that’s the reason why [coach Brian Daboll] had a designed day like [Sunday].”

Added Barkley: “We got challenged by Coach to be a physical team, and I think all the guys stepped up to the plate.”

It wasn’t just crash test dummy collisions that made it a grueling day. At one point during their goal-line reps, Daboll had the teams stop, sprint to the other end of the field and continue their work there. Several players came off the field after those snaps looking completely gassed.

“The intensity, the effort, the energy has been good,” Daboll said. “We’re just going to increase it a little bit relative to reps or extra conditioning .  .  . All part of the plan in terms of the offseason and talking with the sports science and the trainers. You tweak things here and there, but that’s kind of where we planned to be this week.”

How much they’ll keep pounding away at each other remains to be seen. They have their preseason opener Thursday and Daboll said he expects all of the players to play, so tapering back in practices would make sense. They certainly don’t want to keep beating up on Barkley, who figures to be their most important offensive piece this season.

Sunday, though, was full throttle.

“As hard as they are, and as frustrated as you get, that’s football,” Williams said. “All through OTAs, we weren’t able to do that. And all beginning of camp, it was hard to do that. I think time’s winding down, and it’s about time to go full speed against a different color and we need to get that grit in us.”

Center Jon Feliciano called it “an old-school head-banger” of a practice. “We definitely needed it,” he said.

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