When Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly told Connor Barwin he was switching from tight end to defensive end, the Bearcats senior-to-be wasn't happy. After all, Barwin was on the verge of busting out at tight end. The radical switch made little sense to him.
For "about 5 minutes."
The initial shock dissipated into a tremor as Kelly justified his decision over the next 15 minutes. Barwin warmed to the transition. The silver lining grew. And now, he may be thanking Kelly up and down by April.
After a Balboa of a Combine, Barwin is projected to be a late first- or early second-round selection. More precisely, he is expected to mold into the disruptive outside linebacker 3-4 defenses covet. Considering the Packers have just implemented the 3-4 with new coordinator Dom Capers, Barwin figures to be a realistic possibility with the 41st overall selection.
It didn't take long for Barwin to realize his athleticism could be a dangerous mutation at the defensive end position for the Bearcats.
"I realized I was going to be really good at it about three days into spring practice," Barwin said. "It didn't take long for me to realize this was going to be a good opportunity."
Bottled up and shaken on defense, Barwin's athleticism became a weapon.
In his only year of defensive football at Cincinnati, Barwin was the best pass rusher in the Big East. His 11 sacks tied for first in the conference, and the Bearcats were the surprise winners of the league crown. Barwin — who played 10 minutes a game as a sophomore on the basketball team — flat-out ran around offensive tackles last year, like Kabeer Gbaja-Biamilia is his prime, while bench-pressing linemen to their heels with regularity.
It's a recipe for success at the position James Harrison blueprinted last season for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
"He has a great frame; a bit undersized, but has a strong upper-body and is aggressive at the point of attack," Scout.com draft expert Chris Steuber said. "He initiates contact off the snap and plays with great leverage. He has quick feet, savvy moves and is relentless off the edge.
"Barwin's athleticism is uncanny, and not many highly touted players can go both ways, as well as being a great special teams player," Steuber added, alluding to NFL teams' interest in using Barwin as a goal-line tight end.
Weeks before the NFL Scouting Combine, Barwin just hoped he'd crack the top five across the board among defensive ends. Coaches and scouts knew about his athleticism, sheer agility that busted out during Senior Bowl week. No surprises here. Barwin knew he wasn't going to be some sort of revelation in Indianapolis.
Still, if Andre Smith's cowardly exit, Malcolm Jenkins 4.6 trot in the 40 and the loads of stock-killing injuries taught us anything this past week, it's that numbers at the Combine are as valuable as the CIP device on "24."
Barwin performed … and Barwin dominated.
The chiseled Bearcat finished first among the d-line in the vertical jump (40.5 inches), broad jump (10 feet, 8 inches), three-cone drill (6.87 seconds), 20-yard shuttle (4.18 seconds) and vertical jump (40.5 inches). As for that precious 40 time? Barwin was just shy of first place at his position with a second-place dash of 4.66 seconds — somewhat scary for a man who's 6-foot-4 and 255 pounds. That's what top-ranked wide receiver Malcolm Kelly was running at his pro day last year.
Even at linebacker — the position he's expected to play — Barwin finished far better than anyone else. His vertical leap and broad jump trumped the top linebacker Aaron Curry by 3 and 4 inches, respectively.
No question, Barwin earned himself a lot of money in Indy. The fast times and big jumps were a modern-day reflection of Barwin dunking a basketball as a seventh-grader. But like Mike Mamula being the next coolest thing to Starter jackets in 1995, Barwin knows athleticism is only the beginning of a productive career in the NFL. The Combine has a sneaky tendency to masquerade reality.
At Cincinnati, coaches green-lighted freelancing. No restrictions. Just get past the guy in front of you.
"That's exactly why I was successful," Barwin acknowledged. "I just played on instincts and my athleticism. I didn't really learn much technique. I learned a couple basic things, but coaches didn't try to put too much in my head. They wanted me to play fast and that's what I did all year."
"To be successful at the next level, I know that there's still a lot to learn — a ton to learn."
Basketball was Barwin's first love. A friend got him hooked on hoops in fourth grade and the passion took off. That is, until he realized where his future truly lied. The decision to concentrate on football was easy. While the gridiron scholarships came from Division I schools, the basketball ones came from Divisions II and III schools.
"Basketball, all the way through grade school and into high school, was my first love," Barwin said. "(But) I realized I was better at football late in high school. There aren't too many 6-foot-4 power forwards getting paid to play basketball."
So, football it is. Barwin's banner senior year was hardly a farewell, rather the beginning. After a career at tight end, he was "asked/told" to move to defensive end. The move dotted him on every team's draft boards.
You can bet Ted Thompson's included. Not surprisingly, the Packers slow-played Barwin at the Senior Bowl last month. Thompson's poker face never wavers. Like most teams, Green Bay gave Barwin the token questionnaire.
What were your best games in '08? Your worst games in '08? Your best in '07? Your worst in '07? Do you trust your coach? Why do you trust your coach?
The routine ordeal. But Barwin — a self-admitted lifelong Detroit Lions fan — knows the Packers could be in the mix.
"My agent said, ‘Don't even think about teams that showing major interest or what teams aren't showing any because most times, it'll be a surprise which team drafts you.' That's pretty sound advice."
Just not quite like the advice Brian Kelly gave Barwin last year at this time.
Tyler Dunne writes for Packer Report. E-mail him at email@example.com.
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