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Monday, Sep. 1, 2014

Barnes key to Tigers' turnaround

Sunday, January 25, 2004

(Photo)
Lineback Brandon Barnes chases the ballcarrier.
COLUMBIA - Of all of the University of Missouri's graduating senior football players, there may not be a more interesting story than that of Sikeston native Brandon Barnes.

Five years, three position changes and a broken ankle -- all culminating in Big 12 honors -- just barely scratches surface.

It's a story of a small-town kid that went from playing under the lights at Sikeston High School, to competing against a Heisman Trophy winner and the best college teams in the nation.

Barnes, 22, helped lead Mizzou to one of its best seasons on the gridiron in the last 25 years. He finished as one of the leading tacklers on the team as the Tigers went 8-4 in the regular season and made their first bowl appearance since 1998.

But before he leaves college to search for a job, he says he's going to give the NFL a shot.

The NFL? Come on.

That's right, the National Football League. Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, Walter Payton and. . . Brandon Barnes. The same Barnes that spent his five years at Missouri at three different positions: wide receiver, free safety and inside linebacker.

The same Barnes that lost an entire year due to an injury.

Sound far-fetched? Actually, not as much as you might think.

What makes this a realistic dream was a standout senior season at Mizzou where he finally found a home as an inside linebacker.

The 6-foot-3 Barnes steadily bulked up over the years, getting his weight up to 228 pounds where he could withstand the rigors of the linebacker position.

In just one season at linebacker, Barnes proved that the move from free safety was long overdue.

He finished with 109 tackles, second on the team, including 10 of those for lost yardage. He had one sack and led the team with two interceptions. He also had three fumble recoveries, which tied for the team lead, and he also caused a fumble.

His five take-aways led the team.

In the Independence Bowl against Arkansas, Barnes finished second on the team with eight tackles.

He was selected as an honorable mention All-Big 12 linebacker. He was also given two team awards.

At the team's annual banquet, Barnes was awarded the "Missouri MO Award" for sportsmanship/enthusiasm/team spirit, and he was also given the "Breakthrough Construction Hammer Award" for the most big hits.

"I just want to get invited to a camp, anybody's camp, and go out and show what I can do," said Barnes. "Getting drafted can happen, anything's possible, but I only had one year of experience at linebacker. Nobody really knows about me. But there's been a lot of people make it at the next level that nobody has heard of. Hopefully I can be that guy."

While getting his name called on draft day by the NFL is a longshot, Barnes is banking that teams will see the strides he made in just one season at linebacker.

"Hopefully they'll be like, 'man, this guy can improve and can get much better,'" said Barnes. "All I need is the opportunity."

Barnes was recruited to Mizzou by former head coach Larry Smith to be a wide receiver.

After Smith was fired after the 2000 season, Gary Pinkel was hired.

It didn't take long for Pinkel to see that Barnes' future was on the defensive side of the ball.

"I just saw a really big athlete that could run and was athletic," said Pinkel. "You have to make those decisions sometimes to get your best players on the field. And after being here a year, I didn't think he was as consistent catching as what you'd like at receiver. But I also saw this big athlete that could run and was a tough player. If I had known all the things about him I had as a freshman, we might have moved him after his first year to linebacker."

Barnes entered school as a thin, 6-3, 200-pound wide receiver. He was an all-state defensive back in high school, but he also showed some playmaking abilities with the ball in his hands.

After redshirting his freshman year, Barnes was a starting wide receiver the next season.

On national TV against Clemson, Barnes made his first career catch, a 16-yard crossing pattern over the middle.

But just a few minutes later, Barnes' season abruptly ended when he broke his ankle while blocking on special teams.

He returned healthy for the 2001 season and appeared in every game on special teams and wide receiver. But he didn't make any catches, and basically, he was just a blocker and a decoy.

That's when it was decided to move him to free safety in the spring of 2002.

Pinkel said he wanted to make him a linebacker at that time, but couldn't make the switch due to depth problems in the secondary.

"Depth-wise we just couldn't do that," said Pinkel. "We had so many issues with our defense. Our immediate problems were with the secondary -- huge problems with the secondary. He did some really good things at safety, but program-wise we couldn't make the switch to linebacker at that time."

Barnes had an immediate impact as the safety. He increased his size to 6-3, 220 pounds and recorded his first career interception against Ball State, which he returned 25 yards.

He made 53 tackles, had two fumble recoveries and forced another.

He recorded a career-high 14 tackles against Nebraska as he started five games.

Barnes says his first love was always on the defensive side of the ball, although he sometimes fantasizes about what could have been alongside record-setting receiver Justin Gage, now with the Chicago Bears.

"I wanted to make the move when I was a freshman," he said. "I wanted to play defense, I wanted to go out there and hit. But sometimes I sit there and think, 'man, I could've been out there with my buddy Gage catching rocks.' But I didn't do so well that next year after I got hurt. I wish I could play both, but I'm glad I made the move."

After proving that he belonged on the field in the 2002 season, Pinkel made the final switch to inside linebacker.

Barnes bulked up even more, getting on a high-protein, high-carbohydrate diet, and began studying game-film like never before.

When asked about his work ethic, Pinkel responded with the highest praise.

"Exceptional. Absolutely excellent," he said. "If you want to be a great football player at this level, you don't just do what we ask you to do in practice and weight lift. You do many things on your own. That affects how you eat and your diet, the extra video study you do in preparation, the linebackers doing on-on-one and drops. I think as the whole team learned, he did too. That's the kind of commitment it takes to excel in the Big 12."

And his reward for the hard work was evident by his performance on the field. Barnes' switch to linebacker had a direct effect on the much-maligned Mizzou defense from the season before.

Now, teamed with fellow linebacker James Kinney in the middle, Barnes helped the defense become a strength of the team, instead of a weakness.

"It was so gratifying for me to see a player that had bounced around a little bit, position-wise, do as well as he did," said Pinkel. "It was a young program, but we finally got him in the right spot where he could excel at the highest level in the Big 12. He's 228 pounds and he can run and he's tough and athletic. That's why he really excelled, because he's such a good athlete."

And while Pinkel always thought linebacker was Barnes' natural position, even he admits he didn't expect the banner year Barnes ended up having.

"I was hoping that he would have a good year, and I was so pleased because he played outstanding," said Pinkel. "Was he a surprise? When you move a guy to a new position and then to excel at a high level, yeah I was a bit surprised. But on the same token, he's a good enough athlete and if he was totally committed to learning and competing at a high level, then he could have some great accomplishments and he did that."

Barnes' final numbers show a lot. He had many unforgettable performances throughout the year.

He led the Tigers in tackles with 11 against Heisman winner Jason White and the Oklahoma Sooners.

He also played a key role in helping the Tigers defeat Nebraska 41-24. It was their first victory over the Cornhuskers since 1978, the same year Sikeston native James Wilder was a star running back for Mizzou.

But probably his biggest performance was against the high-octane offense of Texas Tech, when he intercepted record-setting quarterback B.J. Symons twice, forced a fumble and broke up another pass.

Beating the Red Raiders 62-31 was sweet revenge for Barnes and the Tigers, who were shellacked the year before 52-38. "Our philosophy was just vision the ball, vision the quarterback and break on it," said Barnes. "Before he even releases the ball, we should have already broke. It was a good offense, but we came ready to play. We came with a fire because we got embarrassed down there last year. We were ready to play this time."

All three of the turnovers he caused led to Tiger touchdowns. Pinkel said Barnes' performance in that game helped Mizzou solidify itself as an attractive bowl team.

"We're playing what many believed was the best offense in the nation," said Pinkel. "He had some huge plays there. He made a lot of great plays against Nebraska. That was definitely a memorable moment for him, as it was a lot of players. He played well in a lot of games, he was pretty consistent. But when I think of him and this season, I think of that Texas Tech game against that remarkable offense, where he made some big, big plays to help us win that game."

The Tigers' season ended with a disappointing 27-14 loss to Arkansas in the Independence Bowl in Shreveport, La. It's a loss that still stings for Barnes.

"It was a big disappointment to go out that way," he said. "I felt that Arkansas did okay, but Missouri beat Missouri in that game. I felt like we beat ourselves."

The Tigers completed the season 6-0 at Faurot Field, the most wins ever by Mizzou in their home stadium.

Pinkel credits much of his team's success to Barnes' unselfish attitude of playing wherever they put him.

"I'm indebted to him," said Pinkel. "He did what we asked him to do and he believed in us so I'm appreciative of that. He and the rest of the seniors, they got to reap the benefits and go to a bowl. You know, get a ring and a watch. And be part of, hopefully, historically, in building the Missouri program."

Barnes says he hopes this season is the beginning of a powerhouse program.

"It feels good to be a part of this," said Barnes. "When I came in Missouri was good, they were ranked and everything. Now we were ranked for the first time this year and being 6-0 at home. We made a lot of history and made some records here. I'm just happy to be a part of it. I can tell my kids someday that I was a part of that team, and maybe say, 'that's the team that got it all started.'"

While Barnes says he learned a lot from Coach Smith, he says Pinkel is on the verge of turning Mizzou into a perennial bowl team.

"I think Pinkel is just a great person for Missouri," said Barnes. "His philosophy and his 'bring-it-on' attitude and his coaching staff, I think the future of the Missouri program -- the sky's the limit. Especially with the in-state talent that we're getting, sealing the borders and going out to the rest of the states and getting their best players too. People are going to start looking at Missouri as one of the best programs in the Big 12, which I believe is the best football conference in the nation."

In high school, Barnes was a multi-sport athlete at Sikeston. He helped lead the Bulldogs to a conference championship in football in 1998 and led the team to a district championship in basketball in 1999.

In basketball he was moved to the post his senior year after playing on the wing and even at the point as an underclassman.

He spent the entire year learning post moves and positioning, showing even then that he could handle position changes.

He ended up averaging 10 points per game and was known was one of the fiercest dunkers in Southeast Missouri.

In football, he caught 24 passes for 410 yards and four touchdowns and provided some devastating downfield blocks. But he was most dangerous on special teams, where he returned two kicks for touchdowns, averaging 39.4 yards per return. He ended up with over 1,000 yards all-purpose, averaging 22 yards every time he touched the ball.

On defense, he didn't have any interceptions, but he was a stellar run-stopper and teams rarely passed over the middle where Barnes patrolled.

Barnes said high school coach Charlie Vickery's practices helped prepare him for the touch haul in college.

"The practices -- I tell you what, the practices helped more than anything," said Barnes. "We used to get after it. We were hitting dang near every day except for Thursday. And then I got up here and there was more hitting. Other players weren't used to it, but I was. Our practices and preparation really helped me at Mizzou."

And now, he hopes, practice and preparation at Mizzou will help him for the NFL.

Barnes says he's already hired an agent and will be looking to attend some NFL combines.

He's got ideal size for a linebacker and he consistently runs the 40-yard dash in the 4.5-4.53 range.

He's gained two pounds since the end of the season to get up to 230 and he continues to work out, all-the-while finishing up his college courses.

He bench presses 250 pounds five times, squats 410 five times and power cleans 309 five times. All solid, impressive numbers, but not eye-popping.

But as Pinkel says, it's his play on the field and his speed and size that has gotten the attention of the NFL.

Pinkel projects him as an inside linebacker, but says he'll have to get up to 235 pounds to increase his status.

"He's got a chance, because he's a big athlete that can run," said Pinkel. "I think a lot of people see that. Speed is what it's all about. People understand that it was his first year (at linebacker), but they saw him do a lot of great things. He's got very good instincts. To be able to play linebacker like he did with one year of preparation, you have to have just great instincts to be able to learn to do that. Instinctively, you have to be special.

"I think it's great. I just want the degree in pocket while he's doing it. The good news for him is he's right in line with graduating here. He's doing it the right way. It will be exciting to see and hopefully he gets an opportunity."

Barnes is set to graduate from the university this spring with a degree in interdisciplinary studies.