It’s back! For the third straight year, the N&O will count down the top 10 most important Duke football players for the upcoming season. Most important isn’t necessarily the best, but it’s a combination of individual skill, depth at a position and cruciality to success.
Duke is on an unprecedented run of success, playing in a bowl three straight years and winning 19 games over the past two seasons. And the schedule is favorable again this year, thanks in large part to ACC divisional crossover games with Boston College and Wake Forest.
No. 8: Wide Receiver Johnell Barnes
Last year’s stats: 23 catches for 237 yards and one touchdown; returned three kickoffs for 100 yards (33.3 average per return).
Replacing Jamison Crowder’s production isn’t likely to be accomplished by one person, but Johnell Barnes will be the receiver who attempts to do that. Barnes will open camp penciled in as the No. 1 receiver.
Statistically, Barnes is Duke’s second most productive returning receiver, behind Max McCaffrey (37 catches, 385 yards, three touchdowns), but Barnes is more explosive. Look for offensive coordinator Scottie Montgomery to draw up deep balls for Thomas Sirk to toss to Barnes.
The coaching staff has been high on Barnes since he arrived on campus. He was one of five true freshman to earn a letter in his first year (Side note: It was a suspension and injury to Barnes, resulting from an altercation at a bar with a Duke lacrosse player, that allowed DeVon Edwards to take over kickoff duties in 2013. All he did with the opportunity was turn into an All-American return man).
Last year, coaches looked for ways to get Barnes more involved, and the quarterbacks’ issues with accuracy probably contributed to his modest statistics. He ended the season on a high note, catching a 14-yard touchdown pass and a 30-yard pass from punter Will Monday on a fake punt attempt during the Sun Bowl loss to Arizona State.
At 6 feet tall and 170 pounds, Barnes is a significantly bigger target than Crowder. In theory, he has the gifts to make plays in space, just like Crowder did. If Barnes can be a steady pass catcher that can reliably collect yards after the catch – making him an attractive bubble-screen, check-down option for an inexperienced quarterback – the field will open up for every other offensive player.
Previously in this series: