By Zach Berman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 16, 2009
Since Will Barker arrived on Virginia's campus in 2005, three of his fellow offensive linemen have heard their names called in the first round of the NFL draft.
Although Barker probably will not be selected that high next April, the fifth-year senior enters this season as likely the next Cavaliers offensive lineman who will go from Charlottesville to the NFL. Barker has started all 37 games during the past three seasons. He now awaits his final season, the college football version of a contract year.
"I got to go out there and have a great season," Barker said. "I got that mind-set that I need to have a great season, not only for myself, but for this team. This team needs me to have a great season."
Barker became a fixture in the Cavaliers lineup in the 2006 season opener against Pittsburgh, when he earned the job as a redshirt freshman. But over the past four years, the 6-foot-7, 320-pound right tackle watched the spotlight shine on more celebrated teammates on the offensive line such as D'Brickashaw Ferguson (the No. 4 pick in the 2006 draft), Branden Albert (the No. 15 pick in 2008) and Eugene Monroe (the No. 8 pick in 2009).
"There's shoes to be filled," Barker said. "I might be the right person to fill those shoes."
The responsibility has required a personal transformation for the soft-spoken native of suburban Philadelphia who was otherwise known for his fire-red hair and mammoth physique.
When Barker was named the ACC offensive lineman of the week last season, Coach Al Groh called Barker's parents to share the news because he did not think Barker would. Groh was correct; Barker's parents had learned of the award from a friend.
At the annual ACC Football Kickoff in July, each ACC school sent two players. Groh selected Barker to represent the Cavaliers, a role Groh did not think Barker could fulfill a season ago.
"If you said write down the names of those players you might send to the ACC Kickoff in 2009, Will would have been well down that list," Groh said. "This year, it was an easy choice to pick him as one of the players to represent the team."
Groh noticed a change in Barker's "overall maturity" beginning in the spring, and said Barker exhibits a "purposefulness" that was not present when he first arrived.
"Will was, at best, a mediocre practice player early in his career," Groh said. "A lot more into the games than in practice. This spring, he really had it screwed down on every turn, trying to become the best he can be. He has embraced everything that's been asked of him a year ago at this time."
One reason for that is because Barker isn't facing any off-field distractions entering this season. In late July 2008, Barker and teammate Dave Roberts were arrested for stealing beer from a cooler at a Charlottesville nightclub. The incident cast a negative shadow over Barker and seemed to affect his play on the field.
But things changed on Oct. 6, when Barker and Roberts were acquitted of misdemeanor petit larceny charges.
"I definitely think it affected it," Barker said. "Then my play improved, obviously, because I didn't have a distraction."
That was most evident during an Oct. 25 upset of Georgia Tech. Barker did not allow a sack against standout defensive ends Michael Johnson and Derrick Morgan and earned the weekly ACC honor.
After three seasons in Virginia's starting lineup, Barker has one last fall to cement his status in Virginia history and extend the program's tradition of standout offensive linemen. Most important for Barker, he is more aware of that than at any point in his career.
"Looking back on it, people always tell you it's the best time of your life and it flies by," Barker said. "You never really realize it until you're a senior going into your last camp."