Of all the testimonials given to Georgia Tech nose tackle T.J. Barnes’ improvement, perhaps none carries more credence than one from a teammate who has spent much of the past two weeks colliding with him.
“T.J., he used to not be much of a threat to rush the passer,” guard Will Jackson said, “but now he’s getting back there and he’s a lot quicker and a lot more explosive off the ball.”
The wait for Barnes, blessed with an easy laugh, quiet personality and immense size, to measure up to his potential may be over. This much is certain – now heading into his senior season, he can’t wait much longer.
“I think he realizes right now he’s got 12 games he’s guaranteed to play,” strength and conditioning coach John Sisk said.
The hoopla over Barnes began soon after his arrival from Enterprise, Ala. He was a terror on the scout team in his redshirt season. It led coaches and fans to imagine what he could do against actual opponents.
“He’s got the ability to one day be a great player,” former defensive line coach Giff Smith said during Tech’s 2009 spring practice, Barnes’ first. “How quick he gets there will be determined by how hard he continues to work.”
The fervor grew when coach Paul Johnson hired Al Groh as his defensive coordinator following the 2009 season. Barnes, 6-foot-7 with weight that hovered around 340 pounds, seemed an ideal fit to be an anchoring nose tackle in Groh’s 3-4 defense. However, in his first three seasons, Barnes’ most estimable opponents were not Georgia or Virginia Tech, but his stamina and weight. He missed only one game in his first three seasons, but made the starting lineup only three times.
Logan Walls has graduated and Barnes’ backup, Shawn Green, is promising, but has only played four games. Tech, it appears, has no choice but to start Barnes, who has in turn shown teammates and coaches that he is ready to accept the challenge.
“T.J. wants to do very well,” Groh said. “He’s got a very strong want-to.”
In the summer, following the team’s morning strength and conditioning workouts, Barnes voluntarily returned in the afternoon three to four times a week for extra training with Sisk. Barnes used the time for stretching, elliptical machine, core-strength work and kettle-bell exercises. When the team had a week off at the end of the summer term before the start of fall camp, Barnes did two more workouts on his own.
Said Sisk, “I think he took ownership of his work ethic this summer.”
Teammates noticed his work in the morning workouts. Just before the start of fall camp, inside linebacker Quayshawn Nealy gave Barnes credit for his conditioning work, for managing his weight and for keeping up with smaller teammates in speed drills.
Barnes “kicked it into gear,” Nealy said. “I can’t honestly say what made him kick it into gear, but I’m just glad that he did.”
Asked that question, Barnes pointed at a finger at Nealy and other teammates.
“You’re just looking to your left and to your right and behind you,” Barnes said. “You’re fighting for those guys.”
Another is Julian Burnett, whose neck injury in the Sun Bowl ended his career.
“You don’t want to let them down, especially since we lost ‘Rambo,’” Barnes said. “He’s still counting on us. Being a senior, you have to be able to push through.”
A superior season from Barnes could shape Tech’s route to an ACC championship as perhaps any player. As a nose tackle, Barnes’ responsibility is to stalemate centers and guards and disrupt offenses. Groh has described the position as being “the pillar or the rock in the middle.”
“There’s nothing better than having somebody who can just stuff the middle every time,” defensive end Izaan Cross said. “Just eliminating that from the game plan is awesome.”
At last check, Barnes’ weight was a manageable 342 pounds and his summer labors appeared to have had the desired effect on his endurance and flexibility. Tech will start the season Sept. 3 against Virginia Tech.
Will Jackson can hardly wait.
Ken Sugiura, Georgia Tech notes