There’s no doubt quarterback Chris Robison was the anchor for Oklahoma’s SoonerSquad17 on offense. He committed June 26, 2015, and it was a wrap. And you didn’t have to look far to find one on defense, either, in Southlake (Texas) Carroll safety Robert Barnes.
After committing Sept. 7, 2015, Barnes was solid. Sure, it helped that his father, Reggie Barnes, was a linebacker and captain at OU. But Robert is his own person, but OU fans never felt worried about Barnes looking elsewhere.
“I definitely thought we had the potential of something special,” said Barnes about OU’s sixth-ranked recruiting class. “Me and Chris were the first ones committed. After we talked, we knew what we wanted the class to be and how wanted it to turn out.
“What I think was so important with this class were the connections we made built long before we even got to Norman.”
Barnes isn’t wrong. The willingness of the 2017 commits to constantly make the trek to Norman to help spread the word or continue the good vibes was huge throughout the recruiting cycle.
Barnes entered his senior season as an unquestioned four-star recruit, but he took his game to a different level, culminating with him being OU’s top-ranked signee. Part of that was also being used as a receiver for the first time.
“It was fun, playing offense and defense,” Barnes said. “Our team, that was the most complete Dragon team I’d been a part of. The atmosphere was amazing.
“After the Union game, we weren’t really getting a lot of things done offensively. Coach asked me if I would do both, how I would feel about that. At first, I wasn’t really fond of it. After those first couple of practices, it was real fun.”
And real productive. Barnes, despite no genuine background as a receiver, was a major contributor for the Dragons. He had 26 catches for 428 yards and four touchdowns to go with 41 tackles in seven games before his season came to an abrupt halt.
Barnes fractured his right fibula and would miss the final games of his high school career and would miss the chance he earned in being picked for the U.S. Army All-American Bowl.
The Sooners, however, never left his side.
“We’re always going to stand by our work,” head coach Bob Stoops said. “An injury isn’t going to keep us from continuing to honor that scholarship. Robert will heel up just fine. He’s an exceptional player and young man. We do become very close with all of the guys we recruit.”
He's not quite where he wants to be, but Barnes is getting closer to where he used to be. He said he was cleared last Tuesday to start participating in football activities again.
He said it was a tough process to have to sit out and not be active, but he also realized he had to make sure he healed up. He said he hopes he’s about a month away from returning to his normal self.
Playing both ways allowed him to see the game through the eyes of a receiver. He said it escalated his knowledge of the game, which should help him as he returns to safety full time. And he is excited to return to being that physical safety once again.
“I have to get back to footwork and making the 90-degree and 45-degree cuts,” Barnes said. “It will be about getting back to being a football player and having those safety tendencies again.
“The injury, though, was a blessing in disguise.”
It allowed Barnes to take a step back and evaluate things. His love of SoonerSquad17 never went away, either, so he was still an integral part of OU trying to finish out the class.
The 1-2 start for OU wasn’t ideal, especially with so many top commits in town for OU’s 45-24 loss to Ohio State back in September. But people didn’t flinch. It might have actually brought the group closer together.
“If losing two games made you change your mind, then we don’t want you to be a part of that,” Barnes said. “If anything, after that start, we were saying how the season was going to be next year.
“It was great to see the team bounce back. Being able to see that camaraderie and winning the Big 12 and winning the Sugar Bowl was awesome.”
The moniker SoonerSquad17 made the class stand out initially, but then it was the relationships built and the family-like atmosphere that made sure it stuck.
Barnes said it just grew each time. The group playing together at The Opening in July. The guys together at the Under Armour All-America Game and U.S. Army All-American Bowl. Their approach, though, really wasn’t about recruiting guys to play football.
“From the start, we knew and everybody else knew,” Barnes said. “Recruiting for SoonerSquad17, we weren’t going to pressure anybody to commit or to stay committed.
“We wanted you to share the same love for the University of Oklahoma as we do. With this class, we built such great relationships. It was beyond the University of Oklahoma. It was beyond just recruiting guys to the team. It was being a part of a family.
“I can’t wait to be a part of this special team. This special group of guys and the chance to get on the field and be able to compete with all of these guys and chase that national championship.”