EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Saquon Barkley's debut didn't get off to a flying start. On his first two NFL carries, he couldn't even break the line of scrimmage. He did nothing of note in the first half at all.
Yet somehow there was a feeling that something was different. Somehow, watching Barkley, everyone knew.
"I mean, I knew right away," said Jaguars defensive end Calais Campbell, who helped tackle Barkley for no gain on the rookie's first run. "The first run and the first couple of times I tackled him, I said, 'This kid has something.'"
It took a while, but by the end of the game, he certainly did.
And that's what's so exciting, so tantalizing about Barkley, the most electric running back the Giants have had since Tiki Barber, and probably even longer than that. He has a Barry Sanders-like ability to be a threat for a big play every time he touches the football. And when he's just chipping away, finding no room to run through the defense, he gives hope that it's only a matter of time.
It took almost 50 minutes for it to happen in his NFL debut -- a 20-15 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars. He had carried 16 times to that point for 37 yards, a demoralizing 2.3 yards per carry. The disastrous offensive line play in front of him wasn't helping, but he hadn't flashed his hyped ability to make something out of nothing.
And then he did: a dazzling, 68-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter that was exactly the kind of thing the Giants envisioned when they passed on potential franchise quarterbacks and made him the No. 2 overall pick in the draft.
"It was a great run," Giants coach Pat Shurmur said. "That's why we drafted that young man."
The run had everything. He made four Jaguars miss right at the line of scrimmage. It looked like he was heading up the middle, but that hole closed fast, so he cut to the right where tight end Evan Engram helped him with a huge, backside block. Barkley did the rest, making everyone miss. He even dodged another tackle along the sidelines 28 yards down the field.
He ran, to borrow Giants GM Dave Gettleman's infamous descriptions, like a "gold jacket player." He ran like he really was "touched by the hand of God."
To that point in the game, that wasn't clear at all. Eleven of Barkley's first 16 runs had gone for three yards or fewer. Over the last few years the Giants have gotten used to that, but usually there's no payoff in the end. Barkley provides the constant promise of a payoff, the feeling that he's wearing down the defense, and just when they think they have him stopped, he's gone.
"Obviously you wish that they were all 75- and 80-yard runs," Barkley said. "But it wasn't like that in college and I didn't expect it to be like that in the NFL. You have to take what they give you. It's kind of like playing chess. When you get your opportunity, you have to execute."
He did, and he ended up with 106 yards on 18 carries and another 22 yards on two catches. The Giants seemed to really underutilize him in the passing game, though he was targeted six times -- more than anyone but Odell Beckham Jr. (15) or Sterling Shepard (seven). Now that he's healthy and has shown a taste of what he can do, it's hard to imagine the Giants will ever underutilize him in any way, anymore.
Because those big plays -- and the hope for those big plays -- can energize an offense. Beckham has done that time and time again in his career with the Giants. Now he's got someone else to help him do that, too.
"I've told him this multiple times," Beckham said. "I've had dreams of seeing Barkley running down the field, breaking for the end zone. There is no better feeling than running the ball and somebody takes it 60, or however long it was, to the house."
For a Giants team that hasn't had much of a running game in recent years, even the hope of that happening can be a great feeling. And that's what Barkley brings them: the hope that the next big play is just around the corner.
Just ask the Jaguars, who have one of the NFL's best defenses, and now were Barkley's first NFL victims. Those big plays are coming. And if his first game was any indication, they will be coming more often than not.
"Coming into the NFL against a team like ours, and making some of the plays he made, that kid's going to be special," Campbell said. "I traded jerseys with him after the game because I was like, 'OK, if he can stay healthy, he might one day be a Hall of Famer.' So now, I'll get his jersey when he's young."