June 10, 2010
By Matt Winkeljohn
If the football clock is running down on Anthony “A.T.” Barnes, and to be frank there is no evidence suggesting otherwise, you wouldn’t know it by him.
There may be some small-scale wreckage in the wake of a college career that so far has not taken flight as many once thought it might, but a meeting with the senior offers his sun shining upon his field of optimism.
He told an ESPN.com writer last fall that he’d seen it all at Georgia Tech, and track record backs him up. The best part? He has a season left to amend the script. “I got a lot to prove because I haven’t really done anything,” he says without bitterness or disappointment in his voice.
An ice-breaker, a semi-sarcastic understatement that his Tech, “career has taken an unusual arc,” triggers deep laughter. A huge smile breaks out on the face of a recently-minted mountain of a man.
There is no outward sign that Barnes’ arrival at Tech as a tall, athletic safety-wide receiver-linebacker-uber athlete was delayed five years ago by the NCAA quibbling over his high school transcript.
It’s not obvious that after redshirting in 2006 he went on to become a part-time starter in ’07 while registering six tackles for lost yardage but has not approached that success since. You can’t tell in talking to him without asking that he dislocated a shoulder in the first game of ’08 and broke a leg in the last game of that fractured season, nor that he wandered between positions in ’09.
All that’s evident at first pass is energy in a young man – he turned 24 on Jan. 4 – who seems tickled to be where he’s at, about to play for the third defensive coordinator of his five-year Tech career.
The promise that the 6-foot-3 Barnes showed while catching 47 passes as a senior at Cartersville High while also wreaking havoc on defense is now matched with enthusiasm; he can hardly wait to settle in at outside linebacker in the new 3-4 defense of new coordinator Al Groh.
“You can play free. They aren’t putting any more thinking on the outside linebackers; that’s on the inside linebackers,” Barnes said with another smile. “Outside linebackers, we’re basically free and roaming. The 40 [-yard dash] ain’t got nothing to do with it. [Groh] wants us to be animals. He wants you to be physical and aggressive. No more reading [keys] . . . if you see it, go get it. Beat them up.”
Barnes is simplifying here; outside linebackers will have a few keys to read, particularly if there is a tight end on his side. But Groh makes no secret of the fact he wants to turn loose his OLBs. The No. 1 example of OLBs with whom he’s worked: Pro Football Hall of Famer Lawrence Taylor.
It wouldn’t be right to suggest that A.T. was ever on his way to emulating L.T., but when he played in 12 games and started three as a redshirt freshman in ’07 while splitting time with Shane Bowen, it was plausible to forecast big. He had a combined 29 tackles and assists, 1.5 sacks and six tackles for lost yardage in the last season under former defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta.
Alas, injuries wrecked his sophomore season, when he was in on a combined 16 tackles, and he put up nearly identical numbers last fall when he had been groomed from late spring through summer for the new “Wolf” position of former defensive coordinator Dave Wommack.
Barnes did not fit. On paper, the Wolf was to merge linebacker and a safety, but while he had played safety well in high school he’d grown out of that end of the job description. While trying to shrink back into the position, Barnes threw his body out of whack.
“Last year I was getting smaller; they wanted me to stay at 225 so I had to work at that,” he said. “This year, they want me to be bigger, and faster and stronger so I can be natural, get bigger as my body would. Right now I’m at 245 and my body can still put on a little more weight.”
Wommack abandoned the Wolf after a few games last season, but it was too late for Barnes.
Now, happy as he is, he’ll have to compete. He and Anthony Egbuniwe – “Boonie” as Barnes calls him – will enter summer camp as the starting outside linebackers.
There are no guarantees they’ll keep those spots. Barnes must prove he can carry his practice tempo into games. But A.T. – who will graduate at the end of this summer with a degree in business management — sure seems happy to have another shot.
“It’s going to be a faster defense,” he said. “I think it’s going to be way better. This year . . . everybody is on the same page. Everybody is going to be one unit. I think it’s going to be way better than last year.
“Taking myself, they ain’t really seen nothing I can do because I had the injuries and then I had the substitution-type deal. I can really show what I came here for. My freshman year was probably the best I had and then up and down depending on injuries and the type of defensive coordinators or whatever. I hope [fans] haven’t forgotten me, but if they have I’ll get `em back this year.”