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December 26, 2012

Beginning for the end

* This story appeared in the November 2012 edition of Blue White Illustrated.

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By Ryan Jones
Blue White Contributor

Responsibility keeps popping up in ways Deion Barnes never expected.

All that playing time? Starts in five of Penn State's first six games? Barnes knew that, even as a redshirt freshman, he'd get on the field this season. He knew that injuries to senior starter Pete Massaro would mean he'd get his chances at defensive end. But he thought those chances would be limited. "I thought I was going to come in, maybe fill the void a little bit," Barnes said. "I didn't think there'd be this much playing time."

And what about his emerging role as a pillar of the program's future? When Barnes and five of the Nittany Lions' other young standouts last year dubbed themselves the "Supa Six," it was a chance for lighthearted bragging about their bright collective future. Now, they have emerged together as not only key players, but as symbols of the kind of talent Bill O'Brien must keep on campus as Penn State endures four years of NCAA sanctions.

Barnes didn't see that coming, either. But now? "Yeah, we're aware of it," he said, with a hint of tentativeness that speaks to his age. It can't be easy for any 19-year-old to fully understand the weight of all this. But Barnes sure seems to be trying.

It's midway through Penn State's bye week, an overcast October Wednesday afternoon, and Barnes' 6-foot-4, 245-pound frame leans out from an easy chair in the Lasch Building players lounge. The lights are off, and a couple of teammates are sunk into couches trying to catch a pre-practice nap. The vibe is relaxed, as it should be for a team on a four-game winning streak, and with a week off to heal and get home for a few days with family and friends.

Barnes is set to head to Philly at the end of the week, a short trip home instead of the long-term relocation he briefly considered last summer. Like many of his teammates in the wake of those sanctions, Barnes considered his options, wondering what he would do if the early doomsday predictions for the program came to pass. "I was just thinking, if everybody leaves and there's nobody here, I might have to leave, too," he said. Temple has recruited him, and while he'd had more attractive offers out of high school, he wasn't eager to move far from home.

Ultimately, like most of his teammates, he chose not to contribute to a domino-effect exodus that never really came. "Most of the guys stayed, my friends all stayed," Barnes said, "so there was no reason to leave at all."

A few years from now, Barnes might well be one of the players whom Penn State fans recall most gratefully - not simply for sticking around, but for excelling in the process. Certainly the early signs are encouraging. His stats through the first half of the season were modest enough - 12 total tackles - but his impact was undeniably felt. Five of those were tackles for losses, including four sacks, and he forced a pair of fumbles. Beyond the numbers, he has a presence that belies his age and has distracted opposing quarterbacks all season long.

"I know Larry Johnson probably gets mad because I talk about him so much, but Deion is a really good football player who has a huge future," O'Brien said after Barnes registered five tackles and a sack against Navy. "The way he gets off the football, uses his hands, the way he gets off the edge, the way he understands where the quarterback sets up and the way he tries to strip the ball shows his potential. As a young player trying to do that, you know he has a bright future."

That's substantial progress for a kid who said he spent his true freshman season "begging" to play, but who says now, succinctly, "I wasn't ready." A year of mental and physical maturity appear to have paid off. "Everyone on the team knew he had talent-that was a definite," Massaro said earlier in the season. But it took learning behind the likes of Massaro and fellow end Sean Stanley, not to mention standout tackles like Devon Still and Jordan Hill, for Barnes to turn talent into game-changing ability.

Predictably, his position coach had something to do with it, too. Johnson's reputation for churning out stud pass rushers is well established at Penn State, and there's every reason to believe Barnes could be another star pupil. Barnes, who sees NFL All-Pro (and off-season Lasch workout regular) Tamba Hali as a role model, knows he's got a great teacher. "The main thing, I listened to Coach J more," Barnes said. "Coach Johnson tells me every time, even when I do good, that I'm not finished yet. He's coaching me right."

Asked to grade his play through his first six games of college football, Barnes pondered only for a second. "I give myself about a C-plus," he said. "I missed a few sacks - the Temple game, I came wide open, the quarterback saw me and stepped up, and I just swiped at him… the worst feeling."

It's a sign of where things stand for the Lions at midseason that Barnes can mostly laugh it off, but as his self-assessment confirms, he's not settling. Earlier this season, defensive coordinator Ted Roof called Barnes a "prideful kid," and he clearly meant it as a compliment. "His performance is important to him," Roof said, "and at the same time, he's a team guy. Deion's got some ability, and he's working hard to get better."

With Massaro and Stanley both gone after this season, it's easy to imagine Barnes spending the next three seasons turning that ability and hard work into stardom. That assumes he stays. He said his brief thoughts of transferring were just that - brief - and whenever he's been asked, he has reiterated his intentions to stay a Nittany Lion. "I haven't been bothered by any other coaches, and I'm glad I haven't," he said. "I wouldn't listen to it. If they call, I'm not listening."

If the past year has taught Penn State fans anything, it's that drastic change can come out of nowhere. Until the NCAA sanctions end, it seems foolhardy to assume any Lion with eligibility remaining might not have his heard turned by a program with national title aspirations. Barnes and the rest of the Supa Six - Adrian Amos, Bill Belton, Kyle Carter, Allen Robinson and Donovan Smith - are just the sort of players the Lane Kiffins of the college football world will be after. Their collective and continued commitment would send an invaluable message about the short- and long-term future of O'Brien's program.

It's a responsibility they never would have expected, but as Barnes says now, he and his fellow 2011 recruits "kind of" get it. It helps not to worry too much about the big picture. "We definitely want to keep everybody here," he said. "If we all keep contributing the way we're doing, we know we can help this team out a lot. If you see all of us, all the core guys, staying, there's no reason to leave."

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