The Giants didn’t crush their fans’ hopes of a potential Saquon Barkley return Thursday night. But they didn’t offer many encouraging hints, either.
Ultimately, a decision has yet to be made, Barkley and coach Pat Shurmur insisted, but the star running back did suffer a high ankle sprain just more than two weeks ago and has yet to practice fully since surprisingly returning to workouts with his teammates last week.
“You didn’t hear that from me,” Shurmur said on Tuesday, when asked about reports that described Barkley’s chances of playing against the Patriots as unlikely. “Some of the stuff that’s out there we didn’t put out there.”
“I don’t know how that story happened,” Barkley added.
If Barkley is inactive, the onus would fall on third-stringer Jon Hilliman and Eli Penny, a former practice squad player and the team’s starting fullback, respectively. Backup running back Wayne Gallman (concussion) is also out.
The Giants also will be without No. 1 receiver Sterling Shepard (concussion) and may not have starting tight end Evan Engram (knee) either. No wonder the Patriots and their top-ranked defense are 16 ¹/₂-point favorites.
Barkley has been involved, but limited, for the Giants’ last three practices — Friday, Monday and Tuesday — and is well ahead of the initial timetable of six to eight weeks. He continued to be able to run and cut in Tuesday’s practice, he said, but expected to be sore after workouts on consecutive days. When asked if he was 100%, Barkley sidestepped the question, saying very few NFL players feel 100% at this point of the season.
“I’m continuing to get better every single day,” he said.
Barkley said his mindset is getting ready to play and he was planning to travel with the team. Players declared out typically don’t go to away games. Of note, most players had bags packed in front of their lockers for the upcoming trip, while Barkley did not, though the Giants weren’t traveling until Wednesday.
He also repeatedly talked about being all about “team,” meaning he would listen to the medical staff and not push back if he was told to sit out another game as a precaution.
“I [do] not want to come in and be close-minded and be ignorant to the situation,” he said. “I trust the team, trust the process, trust myself, trust God and everything.”
Hilliman, an undrafted free agent out of Rutgers who began the year on the practice squad, wasn’t impressive after being thrust into a prominent role against the Vikings, managing 20 yards on nine carries. The 6-foot-1, 250-pound Penny, however, was productive, rushing three times for 15 yards and catching one pass for 9 yards. He also had a 12-yard run nullified by a penalty. Shurmur didn’t offer much in the way of how often he plans to use Penny at running back, but he was complimentary of him.
“I think he’s a good runner,” the coach said. “He has good vision. He has good collision balance. To this point, when we’ve handed it to him, he’s secured it well. Those are all of the elements that you’re looking for in a runner.”
Penny would love the opportunity. He couldn’t stop smiling as he recalled the last time he was a featured running back — the 2014-15 seasons when he ran for 1,748 yards and 22 touchdowns in college at Idaho — and the possibilities he sees of being given a significant role Thursday night.
“It kind of reminded me of my glory days in high school and college,” Penny said. “Unfortunately, we didn’t get the ‘W,’ but it was a good feeling getting the ball and being productive with it, too.
“I’m always clowning with the coaching staff and Coach Shurmur about me carrying the ball. It was actually funny coming back and watching the tape and seeing me get good production on my runs. Everybody was laughing and making fun of me, but it’s not really that funny to me because I know I can do it.”
He could get an opportunity to prove it. The Giants may not have a better option than their bruising fullback.