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Oregon star running back Barner gets Panthers’ attention

By Tom Sorensen
Tom Sorensen
Tom Sorensen has been a columnist at The Observer for 20 years and has been at the paper for 25, writing about nearly every sport in the Carolinas.

Some numbers:

As an Oregon freshman Kenjon Barner rushed for 366 yards and three touchdowns; as a sophomore he rushed for 551 yards and six touchdowns; as a junior 939 yards and 11 touchdowns; as a senior 1,767 yards and 21 touchdowns.

The Carolina Panthers selected Barner in the sixth round of the NFL draft. One-hundred and 81 players were drafted before he was.

“You know, in my mind I knew nothing was guaranteed,” Barner says Friday on Carolina’s practice field after the second practice of rookie camp. “So I never hung my hat on what I heard, because I knew on this stage that anything could happen. I didn’t want to get stuck on being a fourth-rounder or anything like that because I’ve seen in years past what can happen – and what has happened to guys who were supposed to go earlier and then didn’t. So, disappointed? Yeah. But it just gave me something to work for.”

I love the pick. But I’m partial to small, fast guys. If I were a general manager, I would have three to five at all times.

Barner, 5-foot-9 and 196 pounds, ran a 4.52-second 40-yard dash at the NFL combine, slow for him. At Oregon’s Pro Day he ran a 4.38 40. That’s fast for anybody.

Barner wears a gold earring and has an ambitious Mohawk, hair piled high. He looks fast when he walks. He looks fast when he stands still.

As crowded as the backfield is, Carolina has nobody else who runs like he does, quick and darting and forever looking for room to move.

“He’s also a very smart young man,” says Panthers coach Ron Rivera.

“He was a fifth-year senior, graduated (with a degree in criminology). I think he’s shown that he has some abilities so he’ll be a guy that we’ll have to find a spot for. If he continues to grow and improve and flash like he did, he’s got a chance, a real good chance to help us.”

Unless a team has the first pick in the draft it usually is surprised when the player it wants still is available. The Panthers were surprised that Barner, who was projected to go one or two rounds higher, had not been grabbed.

Says Rivera: “I didn’t quite get it but I know when he was sitting there, and listening to Dave (general manager Dave Gettleman) and the scouts talk about the value at that pick, it made perfect sense to us, it made perfect sense to me, that we took him.”

Carolina’s sixth-round picks typically have made little impact. Damien Richardson, a safety out of Arizona State, played from 1998-2003.

Three sixth-round picks are on the roster: defensive end Greg Hardy, who came in 2010 and emerged last season as a big-time pass rusher; David Gettis, who also came in 2010 and had a stellar rookie season but has played hurt since; and Brad Nortman, who was drafted in 2012 and as a rookie became Carolina’s punter.

What do you bring that so many other sixth-round picks have not?

“Besides my speed, I bring versatility,” says Barner, who ran the 60 meters, 100 meters and 200 meters for the Oregon track team. “I can affect the game on the field from many different aspects – offense, special teams, whatever the case may be. I can make a play.”

Rivera says if Barner sticks he could back up veteran Ted Ginn on kick returns and contend to return punts.

“I’m here now, Barner says. “Every day is a work day. Like I’ve said earlier, I’ve got to play with a chip on my shoulder. Every day I’m going to remind myself that 181 people passed on me.”

You sound inspired.

“There’s no doubt about it,” Barner says. “You always want to make people eat their words.”

Sorensen: 704-358-5119
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