Barber in Panthers’ training camp

Published 9:40 am Thursday, July 28, 2016

As Jared Barber nears the end of a five-week break from football, he will soon return to the daily stress tests of trying to hang onto a spot on the Carolina Panthers’ roster.

Barber went through Carolina’s rookie minicamp from May 12-14, then received the big news that he had cracked the 90-man roster. Then Barber and the rest of the Panthers went through OTAs (organized team activities) and minicamp from May 24-June 16.

Being an undrafted free agent on a 90-man roster brings considerable pressure and anxiety. After the fourth and final preseason game, NFL teams will trim their rosters to 53. Of the 53 available spots, around 45 will be filled by returning and early-round draft picks. There are 10 available spots on the practice squad. That doesn’t leave a lot of room for guys like Barber, as most late-round and rookie free agents don’t make the team.

Davie County folks are hoping and praying that Barber, who is wearing No. 49 for the Panthers, can beat the odds. The Panthers return to work this week, with training camp running from July 28 through August 16 at Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C.

There are 10 linebackers on the Panthers at the moment. They kept eight (including the practice squad) during the 2015 Super Bowl season. If that number holds true in 2016, it means Barber needs to “beat out two guys,” he said. “And I’ve got to beat out two more guys to be on the 53-man roster. I’ve got my work cut out, but that’s what’s going to make it that much more worth it at the end.”

Whether Barber makes the final cut or not is a story for another day. He is breathing rarefied air. Only one other Davie County product has made it this far. Doug Jacobs, a 1986 Davie graduate, lasted until the final cut with the Denver Broncos in the early 1990s.

“Obviously Davie County blew up and it was awesome for everyone who was supporting me,” he said. “The first day I was like, dang, I’m at work with Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis, Cam Newton and all those guys. It hit me. Wow, I’m apart of this team. Whether I’m here for two days or two years, I’m apart of the team right now, and it’s a lot of fun.”

Indeed, it’s a lot of fun. It’s also nerve-racking.

“In college, unless you mess up real, real bad, you’re going to have your scholarship,” he said. “In this, shoot, you could be walking down the hall and they could say: ‘Hey, bring your playbook, you’re getting cut.’”

Speaking of playbook, it’s the “most complex, detailed thing” Barber has ever seen. “It’s pretty impressive,” he said. “At the beginning, I had no clue what I was doing. But the more you study, the more you get it. I’ve been studying hard.”

Being on an NFL team means tons of classroom work. You’ve got earn the trust of your coaches. You’ve got to know your assignments.     

“(Linebackers coach Al Holcomb) always tells me: ‘We can fix a missed tackle, but we can’t fix a blown assignment,’” he said. “You’ve got to know where you’re going. Especially at this level, you’ve got to know what you’re doing at all times. It’s not only knowing what you’re doing, it’s knowing what the other 10 guys are doing.”

Barber’s locker is roughly 10 feet from one of the biggest stars in the league – Cam Newton. He plays alongside two big names – Kuechly, one of the top linebackers in the game, and Davis, a beloved veteran who has been with the Panthers since his rookie season in 2005.

“Both are really smart,” Barber said. “Thomas is more athletic and a little faster. Luke, talk about a guy who works hard. You probably think he’s the most athletic and biggest guy just because of who he is. He’s not the most athletic, but he works his butt off. He works harder than anybody I’ve met in my life. Luke is very smart, so he knows where the ball is going to be at all times. Thomas kind of plays off his instincts. They’re very different, but they’re obviously two of the best in the game.”

Barber plays the same position as Kuechly (Mike linebacker), and he has savored every second of his apprenticeship under a man who has been all-pro three of his four years in the league.

“He’ll text me and tell me when he’s working out,” Barber said. “I’ll go work out with him and go run. (This) week we’re going to be watching film with each other, getting ready for camp. He always asks how I’m doing. It makes me work harder because I know how hard he works. I’m trying to learn the defense. There are things about the defense that I wouldn’t pick up on my own right now. He’s really helped me with those types of things. He’s all about just helping people. He’s the nicest guy you could ever meet. Thomas Davis is a heck of a guy, too.”

Carolina’s linebackers usually play a big role on special teams, and Barber has been getting reps on four of those units – punt, punt return, kickoff and kickoff return.

“Preseason games will make it or break it,” he said of his chances of making the final cut. “I’ve got to show I can run down special teams and make tackles. Shoot, I hope they put me on all four of them. It would give me more opportunities to make plays and show ‘em. I would be a good special teams player for them.”

When asked what advice he receives from parents Lee and Dreama, Barber said: “Don’t get hurt and be careful. And enjoy it while you’re there. It’s a blessing whether I’m there as long as I’ve been there for now or for however many years.”