Walk-on A.J. Barker emerges as Gophers' go-to wide receiver, with a 'growing' chip on shoulder
MINNEAPOLIS – A.J. Barker is third in the Big Ten with 231 yards receiving through three games. He's tied for third in the league with four touchdowns.
His next accomplishment will be getting a scholarship to go with those gaudy statistics.
"I'm probably one of the crazy people out there who did believe that I could do that," Barker said after three of his five catches for Minnesota on Saturday went for scores in a win over Western Michigan.
With the departure of Da'Jon McKnight, who finished in the top 10 in the conference in yards receiving each of the last two years, the Gophers had an opening for a go-to guy.
Brandon Green is the senior in the group, but he's been bothered by knee problems. Jamel Harbison turned heads in August practice but tore his anterior cruciate ligament in the opener and will miss the season. Fellow freshman Andre McDonald has missed the last two games recovering from a leg infection. Sophomore Marcus Jones is coming off an ACL injury of his own. Isaac Fruechte is in his first year in the program after playing for a junior college last season. Another speedy sophomore, Devin Crawford-Tufts, hasn't been able to stay healthy.
Tight end John Rabe has three touchdowns himself. And junior Derrick Engel, a transfer from Division II Winona State, has emerged with some valuable catches.
But none has had the impact of Barker, leading the unbeaten Gophers with 10 receptions despite his pay-his-own-way status.
"I can't pull it out of the hat right now," coach Jerry Kill said. "When there's something available and he continues to do what he's doing right now, then we certainly have rewarded everybody, I think, in my coaching career."
Barker, a native of St. Paul and second team Associated Press all-state selection as a senior at DeLaSalle High School in Minneapolis in 2008, redshirted his first year after being invited to walk on then-coach Tim Brewster's staff. He caught a 17-yard pass against Iowa in 2010, but that was it. Last season, his opportunity for more was hindered by a lingering hamstring injury, and he appeared in only two games.
"Looking back on it, I think it turned out to be a positive. It allowed the chip on my shoulder to continue to grow, and I think it'll keep growing," said Barker, who is also the team's primary punt returner.
Kill told Barker during preseason camp that he had to prove his durability in order to work his way up. He still is, essentially, since the official two-deep position chart doesn't even list him on it. Finally able to run at full speed with his hamstring problems behind him, Barker has shown his speed. He has instincts to snag the ball in the air, as he displayed with an NFL-like adjustment for a throw to the edge of the end zone on Saturday in Minnesota's 28-23 victory. And he runs such sharp routes that Engel singled Barker out as one to emulate when he joined the program last year.
"I know he's had the talent to do what he's doing, and it's cool to see he's finally getting the opportunity to do what he can do and perform the way he's performing," Engel said.
That status sure doesn't matter.
"We don't even really look at the walk-on-scholarship thing. We're all just a team. You couldn't walk around and point out who's a walk on and who's a scholarship guy," Engel said. "Obviously the majority are on scholarship, but we just show up every day with the attitude that we're on the Gophers and that we're going to try to come out and get the next win."
Minnesota (3-0) hosts Syracuse (1-2) on Saturday night to close the nonconference portion of the season.
"Syracuse is going to be a tough opponent. We've got a beautiful stadium so obviously everyone likes to come here and play. So we've got to give them our best bullet," Barker said.
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