SPARTANBURG — I write at least once every training camp about a small, fast Carolina Panther. Or maybe it’s once every week.
Today, it’s rookie running back Kenjon Barner.
A sixth-round pick, Barner is 5-foot-9 and 190 pounds. When he was growing up outside Los Angeles he raced the older kids because kids his age couldn’t keep up. He ran a 4.34 40 at Oregon’s Pro Day.
Every time I see Barner, he’s smiling and wearing good-looking NIKE shoes.
NIKE’s headquarters are less than two hours from the Oregon campus, and NIKE has a fantastic store there. Ever go?
“That would be an impermissible benefit,” says Barner.
Oregon went on NCAA probation in June.
So Barner’s mind is quick, too.
Some of Barner’s college highlights are breathtaking, all quick moves, instant acceleration and changes of direction and speed. Is he as good as his highlights?
“Well, I mean, you know, um,” he says.
“God has blessed me with some talent,” he says. “I was very fortunate to do what I did in college and I’m looking forward to try to do the same here.”
As a senior in an innovative Oregon offense that makes everybody look good, Barner looked great. He rushed for 1,767 yards and 21 touchdowns and averaged 6.4 yards per carry. He returned kicks and punts. He lined up with Carolina’s punt return team at practice Saturday.
I ask Barner what has most surprised him about the NFL. Rookies, even fast ones, usually say the speed of the game.
“In college I heard how in the NFL everybody is selfish,” he says. “But when I get here everybody is extremely welcoming. It’s a good feeling to know that you’re around a group of guys that are as welcoming as these guys are.”
Barner says the running backs have all helped him, especially Jonathan Stewart, also a former Oregon star. But the player who has worked with him the most is running back Tauren Poole.
Poole, a former Tennessee star, played well in the 2012 preseason as an undrafted rookie. Then he hurt his ribs and spent the season on injured reserve.
So the drafted running back comes in, the free agent running back who missed his rookie season works with him, and they compete for the same job.
Would most of us, regardless of occupation, help somebody who craved the same position we did?
“With me, there’s no envy or jealousy,” Poole says after practice Saturday while teammates fill the ice tubs behind him. “He’s looking for a job and I’m looking for a job as well, and we’re trying to put great film out there. Competition is great, man, with all the great backs we have. There’s no animosity. I haven’t done much (as a Panther). But if I can help, I got you.”
Even with help, the backfield is jammed. DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert are entrenched.
What does Barner offer?
“He made a cut (Friday) that was pretty impressive,” says Panther coach Ron Rivera. “Right now we haven’t put the things in that we feel will be really conducive to him.
“But 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.”
As a child the biggest question was bigger – would Barner’s parents even allow him to play football? He was small and they thought he’d get hurt.
So he played basketball for the local AAU team and football with his friends in the yard. Then Pop Warner practice would start. His friends would leave to play real football and Barner would stay home.
The mother of a friend who was on the team lobbied more effectively than Barner was able to. He’ll be fine, she insisted.
Barner’s parents relented, and when he was in sixth or seventh grade, he made his gridiron debut.
“I remember the first day of practice I went out in tennis shoes,” Barner says. “I didn’t play football so I had no cleats.
“I ran some routes with the guys and the coach said, ‘You’re going to take my starting receiver’s job and you’re out there in tennis shoes.’ “
Like I said, Barner is always smiling.
“I like to smile, man,” he says. “I mean, life is full of reasons to smile.”
The opportunity to play in the NFL is one. The opportunity to have Poole and other welcoming teammates is another. The opportunity to be the fastest player on any field he steps on is a third.
Will he be?
“I think I will,” says Barner. “And even if I wasn’t I’d say that I was.”
Sorensen: 704-358-5119; firstname.lastname@example.org