It has been six years since Jared Barber last played football in North Carolina, but that’s OK.
A rookie linebacker with the Carolina Panthers, Barber hasn’t suited up in his home state since he was a senior at Davie County High in Mocksville. His final game with the War Eagles was in the 4A state championship game against Durham Hillside.
They lost, 40-0. Then Barber left, off to the West Virginia University to continue his football career.
“I just thought I needed something new, to get out of the state for a little bit,” Barber said after the Panthers’ organized team activities practice on Tuesday. “But I couldn’t be happier to be back. Obviously getting the chance to play in the NFL is a blessing by itself, but playing at home definitely makes it much sweeter.”
The trick now is to ensurehis second go-around in North Carolina ends better than the first.
A rough road
Barber’s college career couldn’t have started much better. In his first season at West Virginia, Barber played 12 games at middle linebacker, starting two. While he recorded just 23 tackles, a season-high six came in the Mountaineers’Orange Bowl victory over Clemson.
By his junior year, Barber was a solid middle linebacker, accruing 71 tackles in just 10 games.
That’s when the problems started.
Barber tore his ACL in an overtime loss to Texas in November 2013. His season was over, and without him West Virginia stumbled to the finish, losing its last two games and failing to qualify for a bowl.
Weeks after his knee surgery, matters got worse: Barber developed MRSA, an antibiotic-resistant infection. His football career was in jeopardy.
“I questioned if I was even gonna give it a shot at times, just because of all the injuries,” he said. “But thank goodness I did.”
Barber redshirted in 2014, his would-be senior season. After rehab, he came back in 2015, earning the nickname “Coach” en route to 58 tackles.
But in April, he went undrafted. That’s when his hometown team came calling.
A minicamp hopeful
Barber attended rookie minicamp with the Panthers before signing as a free agent on May 16. After six years away, he was back near his home in Mocksville, east of Statesville just off Interstate 40.
“It’s just 50 minutes up the road (from Charlotte),” Barber said. “It’s a small place, and not a lot of people get the chance to play big-time ball – whether it’s football or baseball or whatever. I’m just showing kids back there if you work hard enough, you can make it no matter where you come from.”
Now, the trick is making a team known for its linebacking excellence.
“(Former Panthers middle linebacker) Dan Morgan was my guy back in the day,” Barber said. “Now just trying to mimic what Luke (Kuechly) does and TD (Thomas Davis) and all those guys because, you know, I’m learning from the best.”
At Tuesday’s workouts, Barber practiced primarily with the third-stringers. With Kuechly, Davis and second-year pro Shaq Thompson firmly cemented as the starters, opportunities will be hard to come by.
“I’m obviously not gonna settle for a backup, but I know my role,” Barber said. “It’ll be a special teams guy. Work my tail off, get in the film room, work hard. … Just show that I can be a valuable backup.”
And then, if all goes well?
Barber leaks out a grin. “That’s all I really can do,” he said, “and we’ll just see what happens.”