Blindside protector a dream to NFL teams

The most valuable commodity on any team is the quarterback. Check out how many teams are seeking the next Montana to lead them to the next level. Just as important, however, is having an offensive line that can keep him standing upright.

No position on the line gets more love than the left tackle position at draft time. NFL teams line up when there is a prospect who can anchor that spot for 10-15 years and scouts believe one exists in the 2005 draft.

After a fantastic week in Mobile, scouts and coaches are in unison. They believe University of Washington offensive tackle Khalif Barnes has the capability to stabilize a line well into the next decade.

For his part, Barnes is ready for the next challenge. He felt he still had business at the table after missing a chunk of his senior season and was ecstatic to be in high demand after strong practices in Mobile.

"There are a lot of good tackles coming out in the draft this year," Barnes said. "Especially for me, because I missed half of my senior season. I was kind of bummed out because I planned on having a full senior season and moving up into the ranks of the Alex Barron's and the Jamal Brown's and being a part of that group at the end of my senior season.

"Unfortunately for me, it was cut a little short, so I had to sit out a little bit and rehab, put a little bit of extra time in to get ready for that week. For me to go out there and put on the pads for the first time in three and half months, I was pleased with the effort I put into it and the kind of results I was getting out of it. To hear them say (I performed well) at the end of the week was a kind of honor. There are some good guys, I think, who are out there in the draft. To now be considered in the top one to three of the tackles to go into the draft this year is just an unbelievable feeling, to know you're going to get drafted real high and basically have a dream come true. It was an awesome feeling."

A former defensive tackle, Barnes had been injury-free until his senior season. He came into the year with 37 starts under his belt. But on a Tuesday in mid-October during a normal practice session, Barnes fractured his right wrist and was lost for the remainder of the year.

In total, Barnes was on the field as the starter for 42 consecutive games but hadn't seen the gridiron in months, until the week of Senior Bowl.

There was some concern from the Barnes camp on how the wrist would respond to its first "live" action in over three months. If scouts or coaches had any questions, Barnes answered the call with an exclamation point.

"It feels good now," Barnes said of the wrist. "It feels real good now. I'm out here in Arizona, I get it worked on about three times a day, and when I'm at home I work at it myself. I'm just trying to get the flexibility back into it. The strength is coming back into it, I've been stretching. It's pretty good now.

"When I was down there at the Senior Bowl, that was one of my and my agent's concerns, was how it was going to be able to hold up going full-speed for the first time in three and a half months, but I'll tell you what, I went out there and had like a little mini-camp on it, taped it up pretty good, and actually felt pretty good punching with it. It didn't have any pain in it. I really didn't think about it. I turned it off and just played football."

His grit and determination to play despite the potential problems that could have arisen won the hearts of many teams in attendance.

Normally, a player would sit out if there were any concerns or potential to hurt his draft status but Barnes proved he will play through pain and get the job done. It is an important trait and one that will not be overlooked in NFL circles. No player in the NFL is at full health over the course of a season. They want the guy who will strap his helmet on and play no matter the circumstance.

Barnes brings athleticism and leadership to the left tackle spot. The lineman was once used as a wide receiver on a trick play and also held the title of co-captain for the 2004 season.

Graduating from Washington with a degree in law, society and justice this December, Barnes still had time to stop by the football facility and help out the coaches while on rehab.

While his play on the field is what will spiral him towards the top of the draft, his character and willingness to work hard will keep him in the NFL for a long time.

Going from team captain to a rookie in the NFL can be a humbling experience, but to Barnes it is part of the process and how you handle that will eventually define you as a player and a person.

"You do it the same way every time in life," Barnes began. "In high school I was a team captain; from high school to college, I was a rookie then, too. I was the young guy on the field, getting adept at switching and how things work. Once I got my feet wet and we got the rhythm down to the college flow. It's like how you adapt to anything. I adapted to it, and I started getting bigger, started getting stronger, faster, and then pretty soon I was competing with those guys and earning their starting positions the following year.

"I see this as the same thing. You go from being the man at your school and being one of the top players, and you do it all over again. It's like doing another college deal. When you go in, you're the rookie. It's going to be like anything else. I'm going to go in there and adapt, and I know that being young, I'm going to take my lumps here and there, but the important thing is that I never quit in college and I'm not going to quit in the NFL. There's going to be days when it doesn't go my ways. The good players are the ones who come back and respond. I'm going to be one of those types of guys."

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