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Standout running backs set for first pro meeting

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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Saquon Barkley gained a total of 37 yards on his first 16 NFL rushing attempts. He ran for 68 yards and a touchdown on his 17th carry. Those results reinforced a lesson he learned as a star running back at Penn State: one of the keys to success at his position is to keep grinding, no matter what the early results are.

“The thing I took away from the first game is, it’s just like college, to be completely honest,” Barkley said today. “When I say that I don’t mean the speed, I don’t mean the physicality, I mean just that you’ve got to continue to stick with it, especially at the position of running back. Continue to grind out those tough runs and just continue to tell the O-line that one’s going to split, and when they give you the opportunity, take advantage of it.”

Barkley’s long run gave the Giants a chance to win their season opener last Sunday against Jacksonville. He lifted them to within five points of the Jaguars (after getting stopped on the two-point conversion attempt) just 1:15 after the Giants fell behind by two scores on a defensive touchdown. The comeback fell short and the Giants lost, 20-15. But Barkley demonstrated why the Giants were so excited to select him with the second overall pick in this year’s NFL Draft.

“When you can hand a ball off to a guy and he can run 70 yards for a touchdown, there’s very few running backs that can do that,” coach Pat Shurmur said. “He’s a pro, he’s already old beyond his time in some ways. I’ve watched the way he’s trained in the last few months. He was in here doing what he had to do on a Tuesday, his day off, which means he’s already developing the right process. He can catch the ball, he can block, so he does all the things we need a running back to do, and he’s got a good mindset to boot.”

Long runs were frequently included in Barkley’s repertoire at Penn State. He ran for a 92-yard score in his final college game, a Fiesta Bowl victory against Washington. The previous year, he had a 79-yard touchdown run in the Rose Bowl vs. USC. And that wasn’t his longest run of that season; an 81-yarder at Purdue was.

Barkley always takes the field confident he has a chance to turn a routine handoff into a long touchdown.

“I do believe that,” Barkley said. “There will be times in games where I fall short, there will be times in games where I see that expectation a lot, so I’ve just got to continue that belief not only in myself, but with the offensive line and the team itself, the general offense that at any given moment we can score and put points on the board. We’ve got to continue to have that mindset, and continue to work every single day with it.”

Barkley said he had “no doubt at all” that he could break off a long run in his NFL debut.

“You believe that any time you touch the ball you can score, but you really can’t prepare to score like that,” he said. “The only way you can prepare is when you get to the next level, work on a move that’s going to open you up or when you get one-on-one with a guy. Most of the time those plays happen so fast a lot of it is just reaction. Just watching film and believing in yourself, and seeing how the defense, and seeing how we’re going to attack them. Just continue to gain belief, that’s how those big plays happen.”

On Sunday night, Barkley will share the field with another former Big Ten star who was a top five draft choice when they Giants visit Dallas. The Cowboys’ standout runner is the fourth overall choice of the 2016 draft. This will not be their first meeting. On Oct. 17, 2015, Barkley, then a freshman, rushed for 194 yards in a game at Ohio State. But the Nittany Lions lost, 38-10, as Elliott ran for 153 yards and a touchdown.

“I got to meet Zeke after the game,” Barkley said. “He gave me high praise after the game. We both had pretty good games that game, and his team came out with the win, but I got to talk to Zeke in the offseason throughout my college career, keeping a little communication with him. I talked to him last week after the game. He congratulated me on my first touchdown (Elliott texted Barkley after the Jacksonville game), and I just asked him how he’s feeling, good luck to the rest of the season for him, too.”

Because they both play in the NFC East and face each other twice a season, Barkley and Elliott will likely be measured against each other for many years.

“There are a lot of similarities,” Shurmur said. “They’re big, physical guys, they have great collision balance, they’re powerfully-built guys. When I say collision balance, in the hole, guys bouncing off, and they can keep their balance. That helps them in pass protection, because they drop their weight, they’ve got a little weight to them. There’s a lot of similarities between the two. His production in his first two years had nothing to do with us selecting Saquon, but they’re similar in a lot of ways.”

“I’m not big for comparing players,” Dallas coach Jason Garrett said. “Obviously, they were both the marquee running backs coming out in their draft class. We feel really fortunate that we have Zeke on our team, he’s really a complete back, he’s a very smart guy, and he can do so many different things for you and has had a big impact on our team over the last couple years. Obviously, Saquon Barkley is off to a great start himself. He made the big run in the game the other day and anybody who evaluated him coming out of the draft saw that he has an immense amount of talent, capable of doing anything you’d ask a running back to do, and on top of that, a really great kid. I know the Giants, I’m sure, are happy to have him, and he certainly will challenge opponents for years to come.”

Next up – Garrett’s Cowboys on Sunday night.

*The Giants today made a change on their practice squad, signing tackle Brian Mihalik and releasing linebacker Calvin Munson.

Mihalik, 6-9 and 315 pounds, was released by the Detroit Lions on Sept. 2. The Giants observed him last month when they had three joint practices with the Lions. Mihalik played in 15 games with two starts at left tackle last season for Detroit.

He entered the NFL in 2015 as a seventh-round draft choice by the Philadelphia Eagles, from Boston College. He was briefly on the Eagles’ practice squad that year, and signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers on Jan. 20, 2016. Mihalik was released at the end of training camp, spent a week on the Lions’ practice squad, and was re-signed by Pittsburgh. The Steelers cut him on Sept. 2, 2017 and Detroit signed him to its active roster the following day.

“I was with Brian back in Philly, actually, and he’s played a little bit in the NFL and we like him, so we just added him to the practice squad,” said Shurmur, who was the Eagles’ offensive coordinator when Mihalik was drafted. “We’re always looking to make changes and get better so, this is a guy that we like.”

Munson spent his entire 2017 rookie season on the Giants’ active roster, playing in 14 games with five starts. He had 55 tackles (35 solo) and a forced fumble. Munson was signed as a rookie free agent from San Diego State on May 11, 2017.

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