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79 Yards Later

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Barkley looks to build off breakout 2016 (0:49)

Penn State's Saquon Barkley has huge expectations with his name on several preseason watch lists after a big 2016 campaign. (0:49)

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Sept. 4 College Football Preview. Subscribe today!

Saquon Barkley whips his head to the right. Where is he?

It's the third quarter of the 2017 Rose Bowl, and Penn State's running back has just juked a USC defender near the line of scrimmage at his own 20. As a kid, Barkley had loved Barry Sanders, even keeping a Sanders action figure in his bedroom. Growing up, he'd run to one side, then the other, trying to perfect Sanders' Houdini act, an early experiment in lateral quickness that ultimately led him here, in Pasadena, on the verge of breaking a big run.

As he approaches the 25, another Trojan is closing in. Barkley isn't about to try to run through him. His great-uncle, Iran Barkley, was a champion boxer and a brawler, but Saquon would be more like Floyd Mayweather if he ever got into the ring. "I wouldn't want to get hit," he says. Same on the football field. His middle school coaches used to plead with him not to run east and west. But Barkley's thinking is simple: "I just try not to get touched," he told a Penn State teammate who once asked how he does what he does. So again he avoids contact here, his left hand swatting the oncoming defensive back away like a gnat.

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