SPARTANBURG — When the Carolina Panthers took Kenjon Barner in the sixth round of April’s draft, coach Ron Rivera justified the pick by saying Barner could be used for his speed and quickness in certain situations.
But how many backs did the Panthers need? They had already invested more than $80 million in contract money between DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, plus had veteran fullback Mike Tolbert and two promising backs in Tauren Poole and Armond Smith.
Less than four months later, with Stewart still recovering from angle surgery, Barner goes into his first NFL preseason game Friday night as the No. 2 running back on the depth chart, and it’s possible he’ll get more touches than any other back on the roster.
“Did I expect it? I never expect anything,” Barner said of the reps he’s gotten in training camp. “That’s kind of been my thing for as long as I can remember. I go in with no preconceived notions of what it’s going to be like.
“But was I working toward it? Yes. And that’s what you have to do. You have to work in order to get what you want in this game. By me working I wanted to get those extra reps, and hopefully by showing those coaches my work day-in and day-out, I hope I’ve earned it.”
On Tuesday, the 5-foot-9 Barner saw action with the first team when Williams took a veteran’s day off. That’s when his awareness heightened and his decision-making quickened.
“With the first team you have guys like (linebacker) Luke (Kuechly) who can recognize a play in no time, so your decision making has to be that much faster,” Barner said. “There was an outside zone play, and before the ball was even snapped Luke was yelling where it was going. So it’s like, ‘Wow!’ ”
Barner rushed for 1,767 yards on 278 touches in his senior year at Oregon, which landed him on multiple first-team All-America lists as well as a finalist for the Walter Payton Award.
Barner has been targeted in the passing game as well. He hauled in a nice pass out of the backfield from Derek Anderson for a 20-yard gain on Wednesday. Last year with the Ducks, he had 20 catches for 256 yards.
“The biggest thing really is the diversity in what he does as a football player,” Rivera said. “He’s got a great feel for the passing game. He does a nice job in terms of getting out into his routes. He does create some mismatches. He’s learning the protections, to step up and take blocks.
“He’s shown that he can do it. He’s a well-rounded back. He’s not an everyday back because of his size obviously but he can be an effective guy in certain situations and circumstances.”
The Panthers could also use Barner as a specialist, though he’s seldom been with the returners. He set an Oregon record his freshman year with 1,020 kick return yards, but his usage on special teams decreased as his role in the backfield increased.
Friday, the coaching staff will take a long look at Barner and second-year backs Poole and Smith. Poole presents the Panthers with a shifty inside runner, Rivera said, while Smith has the best speed of any of the backs.
Already Barner has turned heads among his teammates, and his ability to hide behind blockers while waiting for a crease makes him a good complement to the power backs in Carolina’s stable.
“I think he’s going to be a great change of pace back for us,” tight end Ben Hartsock said. “It’s an exciting thing to have that 1-2 punch with the big backs that we’ve got that are able to stretch and cut. But also a scat back to be able to do those things, it really does make your offense more dynamic.”