By Steve Yanda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 8, 2008
Frustration doesn't begin to describe the emotion Kenny Tate felt each time he was told to line up against senior cornerback Kevin Barnes during summer workouts. A freshman wide receiver's psyche is fragile enough without having to endure the embarrassment of being outclassed on every single route by a guy who is three inches shorter and 27 pounds lighter.
After each failed attempt at a reception or even a sign of progress, Tate would approach the quiet yet confident cornerback who always seemed able to anticipate his moves. Each time, Barnes would point out how Tate was telegraphing his routes, allowing the cornerback to know when he was about to make his cut: He raised his pad level. His hips stayed locked. He clenched his fists.
"The little things you don't pay attention to," Tate said, "Kevin always does."
Maryland's secondary lost three starters to graduation last spring and is searching for new leadership to emerge. Barnes, the lone returning starter, would seem to be the most likely candidate to fill that role and assume ownership of a suddenly inexperienced unit.
But when asked about how Barnes is coming to grips with his newfound responsibilities, the pensive look of secondary coach Kevin Lempa indicates the senior still is growing accustomed to being the leader.
Lempa's eyebrows arch, crinkling his forehead as his eyes narrow. He pauses briefly before giving his response.
"Well, he's a leader by example," Lempa said. "I mean, he's not very vocal. He doesn't have a lot to say, but when he does have something to say, he says it and the players listen."
For the first four years of Barnes's collegiate career (he redshirted in 2004), he didn't have to be the talker, the one every other player at his position came to for guidance. Early on, he learned from Domonique Foxworth, who went on to become a third-round draft pick of the Denver Broncos in 2005. Then he soaked up knowledge from Josh Wilson, a second-round selection of the Seattle Seahawks in 2007.
However, during the middle of last season, Barnes's first as a full-time starter, he realized a change had occurred. Sure, senior safeties J.J. Justice and Christian Varner, as well as senior cornerback Isaiah Gardner, were the veteran leaders of the secondary, and Barnes respected all of them. But on the field, Barnes got a sense that his teammates were looking to him to provide the spark.
"I think it was more of a transition, like during the season when guys on the defense or the offense would come up to me after plays or at halftime when we were struggling, and the whole team would tell me: 'Yo, Kev, get the defense up. Get the secondary up. Make plays,' " Barnes said. "That's really when it started."
Barnes finished the 2007 season with a team-high four interceptions -- the most by a Terrapins defender since Foxworth had five in 2002 -- and 65 tackles.
Much like Barnes at this time a year ago, the three other members of the secondary at the top of the depth chart are familiar with the program but are new to the standards of starters. Neither senior Jeff Allen nor juniors Terrell Skinner and Nolan Carroll has ever started a game at Maryland.
Barnes, then, has little choice but to step outside his natural inclination to let his play speak for itself. He must come up with something to say, even if he would prefer to remain silent, even if there are aspects of his own game that need fine-tuning.
"For the most part, since I've been here, I've been playing on natural talent, so the coaches have been telling me what's going to take you to the next level and what's going to make you that much better of a player is the technical stuff," Barnes said. "So that's what I've been focusing on."
Stay low on your backpedal. Maintain eye contact on the ball all the way through. Believe what you're seeing. Be fearless. Make the play. As instruction cascades from specific to broad, Barnes grows more secure in his ability and more knowledgeable of the defensive scheme as a whole.
Just before the start of training camp, Tate moved from wide receiver to strong safety at the request of the coaching staff. He still works one-on-one with Barnes, though these days the experience is a little less maddening. Tate said Barnes has helped teach him the nuances of man-to-man and zone protections, as well as the many indications that let a defensive back know a wide receiver is about to make his cut.
Lempa, too, notices the little steps Barnes has taken toward accepting the leadership role bequeathed to him. At the conclusion of Wednesday's practice, Barnes gathered all the defensive backs together for a final talk.
"I think he's coming around a little bit more," Lempa said. "He's not a big talker, but I know he called up the group after I left, so maybe that's a good sign."