This isn't the first time that Jared Barber is being thrust into a feature role earlier than normal. Last year, as a true freshman, Barber played in all 12 games, totaling 22 tackles and two pass breakups. He saved his best for last in the Orange Bowl demolition of Clemson, when he recorded five solo stops and broke up two passes, and as such appeared to be primed for action this fall. Then, the realities of the college game set in.
First came the change to a new defensive scheme. On top of that was piled a move from middle linebacker in the 3-3 front to a weak-side linebacker position in the 3-4 alignment. That might have served to set Barber back to square one, but he didn't let that bother him.
"Wherever they put me I'm going to work my hardest and do the best that I can," he said. "They have done a really good job of taking it slow and letting us learn day by day. I think we have done really well this fall. We are blessed enough to have a great facility where you can come back in and watch film and correct our mistakes. You get the feel of it out on the field then come back in and see what you did wrong."
From the personal standpoint, then, Barber wasn't affected much by the change. He said he has picked up the new system well, and appears to be comfortable no matter when he has been placed. There was more to it that that, though. The new scheme requires more bodies at linebacker and the buck and star positions, and now Barber, although only in the program for a little more than a year, is being counted on to be a mentor to younger players, or those new to the position. It's been a challenge, but one that he knows has to be met.
"I am trying to take on that leadership role, but it's hard being a younger player," he said after considering the issue. "I think I need to become a leader and take that role. I'm young, but we have a young defense."
It's a case of so far, so good, at least in Barber's view. Although he didn't list names, he said he believes at list six players could man the will and sam positions on the defense without a great deal of drop-off in performance. Some of those players, including Nick Kwiatkoski, Shaq Petteway, Doug Rigg, Isaiah Bruce and Troy Gloster, have little experience, so Barber hopes to share some of the lessons he learned on the field a year ago to bring them along. That won't, of course, keep him from working hard to hold on to his job.
"I'm trying to get the starting spot," he said, not taking a preseason listing as the first-teamer at the will position for granted. "It's not set in stone, so I'm trying to win it. The younger guys are definitely pushing me harder. I think at the inside linebacker spots, we are all looking pretty good."
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Barber and his teammates had what he termed "the best day yet" of work in the new defense on Thursday. The defense created six turnovers (twice the daily goal), including two picks by K.J. Dillon.
"It was exciting," he said. "It was fun. If we play like that we are going to be a tough team. Two days ago, I didn't think we had that great of a practice. But yesterday we did. I think we can build on that."