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April 12, 2013* This story appeared in the latest edition of Blue White Illustrated, printed and mailed to our subscribers Thursday.
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By Tim Owen
The memory still elicits a deep belly laugh from Robert Barnes Sr.
Barnes used to help coach the North Philadelphia Aztecs when his son Deion played on the Pop Warner team. After practice, the youngsters would encircle the coaches, take a knee and listen intently. "After we were done talking," the elder Barnes recalled, "we would give the kids a chance to raise their hands if they had any questions or had something to say."
It always seemed like Deion would throw his hand into the air, eager to join the conversation. "Deion, put your hand down," his father would joke, because often what Deion had to say had little to do with football.
The coaches wanted questions about the new plays they had taught, new techniques they had drilled, or inquiries about the upcoming opponent. While Deion was certainly in tune with the football aspect - he was usually the tallest, most athletic player on the field - he also had other, more systematic topics on his mind.
"Deion would talk about math or something like that," Robert Barnes said, laughing as he recalled the scene. "He would get all deep on you. He's a philosopher. He would always ask, 'Why are you doing this, and how are you doing that?' That's why as a coach we'd say, 'Deion, put your hand down because what you're going to say has nothing to do with football.' "
His mother, Cynthia, said that's simply who her son is. Sure, Deion Barnes is the returning Big Ten Freshman of the Year, a star-in-the-making after finishing with six sacks in his debut season while adding 10 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles, fourth-most in the conference. And with his sophomore collegiate season on the horizon, his Penn State coaches and teammates have been gushing about the 6-foot-4, near-250-pound pass rusher, whose recent performances in spring practice have only reinforced the acclaim.
But Barnes has more on his mind than just football. His mother calls him a deep-thinker with a strong interest in everyday politics, African-American history and his family tree, in addition to his football responsibilities.
"He likes world events, what's happening around the globe," Cynthia Barnes said. "He likes to talk about stuff like that, and I do, too. That's why I miss him so much, because we'd go food shopping or something like that and I'd have him in the car. Then we'd start talking about things like that."
When the pads go on, it's a different story. Cynthia said she wasn't surprised at her son's breakout performance in 2012, and she's even less surprised about the attention he's receiving this spring, because she knows how dedicated he is to the sport.
Barnes said he's been putting in extra work this spring. He's packed on nearly six pounds since Penn State most recently weighed him at 244, and he's also improved his speed and reaction time. Last season he ran a 5.1-second 40-yard dash; this year, he's shaved that down to 4.8.
All this he attributes to early-morning runs and squat workouts with strength and conditioning guru Craig Fitzgerald, whom Barnes' mom calls "that crazy weightlifting coach."
Barnes also has been spending a lot of time with defensive line coach Larry Johnson, working on bag drills, hand placement and hip technique. The rising sophomore was dissatisfied with his performance against the run last season, so he and Johnson have been trying different ways to enhance that aspect of his game.
"At certain times when I'd get slant [blocked], I'd get my hips pushed down and it would create bigger holes," Barnes said. "Teams would run at me, line up the tight end and tackles on me. I don't want that to be a weakness where other teams say, 'We're going to run at No. 18. He's a pass rusher. He can't stop the run.' So I think I'm doing a better job now."
Johnson pointed out his tendencies during some off-season film sessions, and the two have been working to address them during spring drills. Even when Johnson isn't around, Barnes is watching film.
As an off-the-edge speed rusher during his first season, Barnes caught offensive linemen off guard because they weren't sure how to prepare for him. He led the Nittany Lions in sacks, but in watching film of his performances last season, Barnes said he noticed at least four chances for additional sacks.
"I think I could have had plus-10," he said. "I missed a lot. I'd either get shook by the quarterback, slip or something like that - little things like slipping and then the quarterback would run around me."
Barnes specifically points to two misses against Temple, another at Iowa and one more vs. Ohio State. There's nothing he can do about those misses now except use them as learning experiences in the hope that they will help him refine his game as a sophomore. Which is exactly what he's done.
Adam Gress, Penn State's senior right tackle, has seen the improvement firsthand. Going against Barnes nearly every day in practice, Gress said his teammate's development has been "unreal."
"He's one of the best defensive ends that I've played against - not just here but against other teams, too," Gress said. "He's made great progress from last season already, and I think he's only going to go up from there."
Gress said one of the keys to Barnes' success is that he never seems to run out of energy. "He's hard-nosed and he always has a full tank of gas. He's never slowing up. He's never taking an off rep. He's either going to get around you or he's going to run straight through you. But one way or the other, he's going to try to get to the quarterback."
Senior defensive tackle DaQuan Jones said he, too, has seen improvement from a season ago. Although Barnes made a great first impression as a freshman, Jones said he expects even bigger things in 2013. "I really do," he said. "His style of play is very unique. I would say he's very fluid with the stuff he does. Just seeing that from last year going into this year, he's changed even more. He's becoming more confident in his game, and you can really see that when he locks on people. Going against the starting tackles, his eyes get all big and he just wants the competition."
It's not just on the practice field, either. Senior linebacker Glenn Carson said Barnes exhibits the same energy in the weight room and in film study. "He's a guy who has a lot of drive," Carson said. "He's a hard worker."
Asked where her son gets the motivation to power through a long and difficult off-season, Cynthia Barnes offers a straightforward explanation. "He misses it," she said. "There's a big gap between November and April. So he's at the point where he can't wait for training to start. He wants to be the best he can be at his craft."
The son of two Philadelphia municipal workers and the youngest of five children - Ronnie, Robert Jr., Derrick and Brittany are his siblings - Barnes was raised to appreciate the value of hard work.
"As the youngest child, he was always wise beyond his years," Cynthia said. "When you grow up around older people, you tend to pick up things like that."
His older brothers had a big influence on his football career. After seeing them go through the pee-wee football ranks, Barnes was eager for his turn. He started playing with the Aztecs when he was about 8 years old.
By the time he was 13, however, he was no longer allowed to play. Around that time, Pop Warner imposed a 170-pound weight limit on Barnes' age group; he weighed 190. But he had already proved he was a capable player, and he continued to prove that throughout his high school career at Northeast. There, he developed into a consensus four-star recruit and led the Vikings to their first Philadelphia Public League championship in almost 20 years.
Barnes hoped to enjoy similar success at Penn State, and so far he has. Although he still has three more seasons of eligibility remaining, he's the subject of considerable fan and media attention. Recently, Barnes was one of several players who met with a host of Penn State beat writers inside the Lasch Building to discuss the team's ongoing spring practice sessions. He stood by a wall that was covered with images of former Nittany Lion defensive linemen Jared Odrick, Jimmy Kennedy, Aaron Maybin, Tamba Hali and Courtney Brown, fielding one question after another. It may have been pure coincidence, but the backdrop could hardly have seemed more appropriate.
Throughout the next few days, stories began to appear in the local media portraying Barnes as the next great Penn State defensive end. His teammates were even asked their opinion of his NFL future. Said Gress, "That definitely could be in the cards. But it's still a couple years away." (Or maybe it's not; Barnes becomes draft-eligible after the 2013 season.)
In the face of all that publicity, Robert Barnes has tried to keep his son grounded. "Don't believe the hype and the press clippings," Robert has warned.
The younger Barnes has taken those words to heart. While he admits to reading portions of the sports section, he said he tries to ignore the publicity, no matter how flattering it might be.
"It's basically motivation for me," Barnes said. "It lets me know that I can't slack off at all. I have to be on top of my game, every game. If I had a couple bad games last year, people wouldn't think much about it. But if I have a bad game this year, people will think, 'What happened to Deion? He's not the same. Is this his sophomore slump?' It makes me realize that I have to be on top of my game, every game."
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