Two years ago, Robert Barnes was playing safety at Oklahoma, with Lincoln Riley as his head coach.
Last week in Los Angeles, both participated in Pac-12 media day, with Barnes representing Colorado and Riley as the new head coach at Southern California.
Riley did a bit of a double-take when he saw Barnes, who is now a 6-foot-2, 230-pound linebacker.
“It’s fun to see him now,” Riley said. “He’s developed so much physically. You can tell later in his career, he’s put on some weight. … We always thought he probably would eventually grow into that. It’s good to see that it feels like it’s kind of all coming together for him here at the end. I would expect he’d be one of the top linebackers in the league.”
The Buffaloes are certainly hoping so. Coming off a 4-8 season (3-6 Pac-12), the Buffs are banking on Barnes and other veterans to lead them on and off the field. Entering his second season at CU and his second season as a linebacker, Barnes feels 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 how to play a different position, learning how to play that close to the ball, and just understanding tendencies of what a linebacker is looking for.
“Towards the end of the season, I caught that confidence, and I was able to go play the level of football that I was capable of playing, but it just took slowing down the game and being able to obtain that confidence I had at safety and flying around and making those plays that I knew I was capable of making. It was just, the game was so fast at one point that I had to just slow it down.”
Coming from Oklahoma, Barnes had high expectations a year ago, but he wound up coming off the bench most of the year. After missing the opener with an injury, Barnes played an average of 18.5 snaps over the next six games. He recorded a total of 10 tackles in those six games.
With star Nate Landman, who has since graduated, injured for the final five games, Barnes stepped up. He averaged 53 snaps in those games while racking up 34 tackles and three tackles for loss. He had an interception and fumble recovery – along with 10 tackles – in a win against Washington.
Barnes said through the entire season, his role was to play in particular defensive packages and when Landman went down, that didn’t change. However, he said, “I think that at the end of the day, we just needed a playmaker. Nate made a lot of plays, and … now I gotta go make those plays. We’ve got to have a playmaker and we can’t just be a whole bunch of play managers out there just managing the game. We need a playmaker that’s gonna go make plays.”
Barnes made a lot of plays and he has spent this offseason putting himself in a better position to make plays this year.
As Riley noticed, CU defensive coordinator Chris Wilson said Barnes is more physically adjusted to playing linebacker.
“He’s done a great job,” Wilson said. “(Director of football sports performance Shannon) Turley has done a great job with him in the weight room. He’s put on some good solid mass; he’s stronger. And the biggest thing is he’s gotten quality reps and playing the position. (Linebackers coach Mark) Smith has done a good job of kind of custom tailoring certain guys for certain roles and now guys can just thrive in those roles.”
In addition to his physical development, Barnes said he has improved his mental approach since the spring.
Selected to represent the Buffs at media day – along with guard Casey Roddick – is a sign that Barnes is also a leader for the Buffs and he takes pride in that. Riley isn’t surprised.
“You’re talking about a leader, a kid that loves football,” Riley said. “Very physical, competitive, tough player. I’m thrilled to see that he’s doing well and I would think with all his experience, and now he’s developed, he’d be primed to have a great last year.”
It’s a year that Barnes didn’t expect to get, but all players from the 2020 season were granted an extra year of eligibility by the NCAA because of 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,” he said. “I think that God has been preparing me this entire time for a breakthrough and I think that breakthrough is about to come. I’m just excited to showcase all this work and through all the trials and tribulations to showcase everything in this year.”