LOS ANGELES -- For every Barry Sanders, Marcus Allen and LaDainian Tomlinson, there's a Ron Dayne, Troy Davis and Damien Anderson. For every running back who gains serious yards on the ground at the collegiate level and transfers that level of success to the NFL, there's one -- or more -- backs whose ultimate production ends at the NCAA level. Whether it's the result of crowded positional rotations, injuries or the vagaries of time and effort, some running backs just aren't made for the NFL -- no matter how good they've been before.
Carolina Panthers back Kenjon Barner, coming into his second year in the league, is smack-dab in the middle of that conundrum. Barner gained 1,767 yards in 2012 for the Oregon Ducks, the second-highest total in school history behind LaMichael James' 1,805 yards the year before. But he was selected in the sixth round of the 2013 draft and had just six carries for seven yards, and two catches for seven more yards, in his rookie campaign. He scored 23 touchdowns in his final college season, but didn't get close to the end zone at the next level. There were only so many opportunities to go around, and with DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert on the roster, and with quarterback Cam Newton taking his own share of the rushing attempts, Barner found himself on the outside looking in, even with one of the most run-heavy teams in the NFL.
Many players would have let this put them in a bad place, but Barner, who's spending a good part of his offseason at the Athletic Gaines facility in the San Fernando Valley under the auspices of trainer Travelle Gaines, said that he learned just how different -- and more difficult -- the NFL can be.
"I never expect anything," he told me about the late pick. "A lot of people ask me, 'Were you surprised? 'Were you angry?' Were you this, were you that. When you expect things, that's how you get let down. The only thing I expect is greatness from myself. When it came to the draft, I'd watched it for the last 17-18 years, and you always see things like that -- guys go early, guys go late, and I kind of had a feel for where I might go, so I didn't expect too much.
"It was never a disappointment because what I gained from being on that team and being around that group of guys -- I couldn't have got that anywhere else. The life lessons, the football lessons... the football knowledge those guys have given me made that season special. So, it was never a letdown; I was never mad. Well, unfortunately I got hurt; that made me mad. But the experience and knowledge I gained made it a positive season."
Perhaps the most stunning thing for Barner, besides the inevitable rookie wall, was how much more he was asked to do mentally at the NFL level. While his Oregon meetings with other backs were generally more toned as "Zone left? Zone right? Got it!", the Saturday night quizzes he and his battery mates had last season were far more comprehensive. Barner told me that the expectations regarding reading blitzes, understanding the positions of defenders, and wrapping your arms around the ways in which plays can change on the fly came as a fairly major surprise. If you want to know the 14 things you could or should possibly do when the weakside linebacker moves incrementally just so, taking a few of those quizzes is a good way to start -- and if you're not on the ball in those meetings, you won't get the ball when it's gametime. Running backs coach Jim Skipper generally prequalifies the readiness of his backs before offensive coordinator Mike Shula and head coach Ron Rivera ever hear about it.
Gaines, who's been training Barner since 2009 and has quite the roster of running backs in his offseason stable (2013 NFL rushing champ LeSean McCoy was also in attendance during this week's workouts), knows that it's going to be a process for his young charge.
"Most of these guys think that when you come into the NFL, that your skills are going to directly transfer over, and that's not always the case," Gaines sad. "I think you have to find your niche in the NFL, because it's such a system- and niche-driven league. There's a guy who can run inside; a guy who can run outside. A guy who can return kicks. A guy who can catch the ball on third down. So you have to figure out who that guy is, because there are very few total-package running backs in the NFL. So, Kenjon figured out the situation he went into -- it was a very crowded backfield. Having DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart there -- where do I fit in? Where do I get in? He realized that he had to bulk up a little more, so he's going to go into this season at about 205 pounds. He's put on a little bit of weight while maintaining his speed. He's going to focus more on catching the ball out of the backfield, and returning kicks and punts, and just being ready for when his [number] is called for whatever the Panthers need him to do."
Barner may have found his niche but for the sprained ankle he suffered in the third preseason game against the Ravens. In early August, Rivera was saying about the rookie that, "what we have seen is his ability to catch the ball, his ability to put stress on linebackers when they’re in coverage and I do like his quickness. The biggest questions will be his protections, his ability to step up and block.”
Working with Gaines in preparation for the scouting combine in 2013, Barner moved up to 200 pounds on his 5-11 frame from a collegiate playing weight of around 180. He didn't lose any speed in the process, running a 4.39 40-yard dash in Indianapolis, but that injury lingered into the regular season and limited his reps when they could have been most beneficial. By the time he got his official first NFL carry, against the Buccaneers in late October, he was already hitting the dreaded "rookie wall."
"He hit the rookie wall, y'all!"
"Oh, absolutely -- the rookie wall!," he recalled with a laugh. "For me, it was about Week 7. I was actually sitting in a meeting room, sitting next to DeAngelo, and I said, 'I don't know if I'm going to make it.' And DeAngelo yells out, 'He hit the rookie wall, y'all!' It's just a long season. For me, it was about being able to sustain throughout that season. To push past being tired and fatigued, and the mental blocks that come in -- you have to learn to push past them.
"It's more mental than anything. You spend most of your time in a classroom. You spend two hours on a football field; the rest of the time, you're in that classroom. Looking at film, going over practices, going over games. And when it's mental, that can be more draining than the physical."
So now, it's back to that same offseason work. Barner wants to maintain his speed and agility while bulking up to about 205 pounds, giving him as much possible power as a guy who's built like a scatback possibly can. As he said, Gaines is a crucial part of that process.
Hoping (and Training) for More
"If you're always happy with your trainer, something's not right," Barner said right after a grueling Tuesday morning workout, talking of his "love/hate relationship" with Gaines. "It's extremely beneficial -- he's been my trainer since 2009, so I have a feel for him, and he has a feel for me. He knows how to push me, he knows my limitations, and he knows which buttons to push. I say that it's a love-hate relationship because when he's training me, I hate him. But he's getting the best out of me and doing what's best for me. Afterwards, I love him -- he's a good guy.
"He works me like a dog, he knows how to get the best out of me, and he knows how I want to perform. Just being here, gaining weight, trying to eat right, staying in my playbook -- I'm just trying to keep this ball rolling so I can break into that rotation."
Barner is also breaking out into different things in his training, as many NFL players currently do.
"I do a lot of different things. You have the speed work, obviously, and the strength training. That comes with the territory. But outside of that, I'm doing yoga, doing a little ballet here and there, -- stuff to stay light on my feet and limber. I'm working on keeping my muscles loose, so if I get tackled in a weird position or whatever, you don't tear a muscle or strain something. You have to do things outside of the weight room and the gridiron to keep yourself healthy and keep yourself going in this game."
Gaines is on board because he knows that Barner will give it his all in Gaines' gym -- and that Barner understands that moving into that rotation is a potentially long and difficult trip.
"Kenjon's a guy who understands the process. He understands playing at a big-time level. He played at Oregon -- they had a lot of games on national TV. Every year, someone was trying to take his job. Every year, the next great name. But he kept staying with it through year 4 -- and year 5, he finally got his shot. He has that same mentality in Carolina. He knows that DeAngelo's there for the next few years; I think Jonathan's coming up on a contract year
. So he's staying ready, staying there and staying in the moment. 'When it's my time, I'm going to shine,' and that's his mentality."
How he'll do that remains to be seen, but even if Kenjon Barner misses the mark in the NFL, it won't be for lack of effort.