Two years ago, Robert Barnes was playing safety at Oklahoma and Lincoln Riley was the head coach.
Both attended Pac-12 media day last week in Los Angeles, with Barnes representing Colorado and Riley as the new head coach at Southern California.
Riley did a little double-take when he saw Barnes, now a 6-foot-2, 230-pound linebacker.
“It’s fun to see him now,” Riley said. “He has developed a lot physically. You can tell later in his career, he’s dropped some weight. … We always thought it would probably turn into that eventually. It’s nice to feel like it all came together for him in the end. I expected him to be one of the best defenders in the league.”
The Buffaloes certainly hope so. Coming off a 4-8 season (3-6 Pac-12), the Buffs are banking on Barnes and other veterans to lead the way on and off the field. Barnes, entering his second season at CU and as a quarterback, feels he’s ready to take a big step forward.
“I think the adjustment (last year) came from safety to linebacker,” Barnes said. “I think it was learning to play in a different position, learning to play so close to the ball and just understanding the tendencies that a defender is looking for.
“Toward the end of the season, I got that confidence and I was able to play the level of football that I was able to play, but it was just about slowing down the game and getting that confidence that I had at safety. and flying around, making the plays I knew I could make. “It’s just that the game was so fast at one point that I just had to slow it down.”
Coming from Oklahoma, Barnes had high expectations a year ago, but spent most of the year off the bench. After missing the opener with an injury, Barnes averaged 18.5 snaps over the next six games. He scored a total of 10 goals in those six games.
Since then, an injured Barnes has stepped up in the last five games with graduated star Nate Landman. He averaged 53 shots, 34 goals and three tackles for loss in those games. He had an interception and a fumble recovery along with 10 tackles in the win against Washington.
Barnes said his role all season long was to play in special defensive packages, and when Landman went down, that didn’t change. However, he said, “I think at the end of the day we just needed a playmaker. Nate made a lot of plays and… now I have to go make those plays. We have to have a playmaker and we can’t just have a bunch of game managers out there running the game. We need a playmaker who will make plays.”
Barnes made a lot of plays and he spent this season putting himself in a better position to make plays this year.
As Riley noted, CU defensive coordinator Chris Wilson said Barnes is more physically suited to playing linebacker.
“He did a great job,” Wilson said. “(Director of football athletic performance Shannon) Turley did a great job with him in the weight room. He laid a good solid mass; he is stronger. The biggest one is that he’s earned quality reps and plays his position. (Linebackers coach Mark) Smith has done a good job of fitting certain guys for certain roles, and now guys can succeed in those roles.
Along with his physical development, Barnes said he has improved his mental approach since the spring.
Being selected to represent the Buffs at media day alongside guard Casey Roddick is a sign that Barnes is also a leader for the Buffs, and he’s proud of it. Riley isn’t surprised.
“You’re talking about a leader, a kid who loves football,” Riley said. “Very physical, competitive, tough player. I’m very pleased to see him go well and I would think with all his experience and now he would be ready to improve and have a great last year.”
It’s a year Barnes didn’t expect to get, but all players in the 2020 season have been granted an extra year of eligibility by the NCAA due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now in his sixth season of college football, Barnes aims to make the most of it.
“Oh, I’m so excited,” she said. “I think God has been preparing me all this time for a breakthrough, and I think that breakthrough is coming. I’m excited to showcase all this work and go through all the trials and tribulations to showcase it all this year.”