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Johnell Barnes ready for bigger role in Duke offense

2/11/2015

Jamison Crowder dominated the receiver spot at Duke over the last three seasons, building his reputation not only with his versatility on the field but his practice habits off of it.

He also served as a mentor to the younger receivers -- most especially Johnell Barnes.

The two had their lockers side by side. They roomed together on the road. If there is anybody to pattern your game after, it would be Crowder. So now that Barnes is being asked to take on a much bigger role with Crowder gone, he hopes to take the advice his mentor gave him and put it to good use.

"I understand I have to come in and step up and be one of the top playmakers," Barnes said in a recent phone interview. "I'm not taking that for granted."

Barnes does not exactly need a reminder, not with two starting receivers gone. While Crowder has drawn all the attention, Duke must also replace Isaac Blakeney. As the top two receivers on the team, Blakeney and Crowder combined for over half the team's receiving yards and touchdowns.

It just so happens that Barnes is one of the more experienced guys coming back, raising expectations. Over the last two seasons, he has spent time as a backup. As a true freshman in 2013, he flashed his potential. Just check out his ridiculous catch in the Chick-fil-A Bowl against Texas A&M, a feat that required athleticism and concentration (and a little bit of luck, too.)

But Barnes has lacked the consistency to be an every-down player. Offensive coordinator Scottie Montgomery wants Barnes to go from a 20-30 snap player to somebody who can manage 60 snaps a game.

Coach David Cutcliffe said Barnes is "so close to reaching his potential," and has the capability of catching 80 passes.

For his part, Barnes said he is putting in more time in the film room to work on understanding coverages better. He also is studying his playbook more to make sure he understands all the plays. One advantage he has working in his favor is quarterback Thomas Sirk.

The two spent last season running with the second-team in practice and built a rhythm and chemistry that has so far translated during the early parts of spring practice.

"Johnell is a more shifty receiver -- I think he's one of the best receivers in the entire country with the skill set he has and the capabilities he has when he gets the ball in his hands," Sirk said. "He's just a natural playmaker."

Of course, Barnes is not the only one who will be relied on to produce with Crowder gone. Anthony Nash, Terrence Alls, Max McCaffrey, Chris Taylor and Trevon Lee will all be asked to step up as well. McCaffrey is the only player in the group who has started a game.

"Everyone's saying we're young, but everyone gets reps in practice so everyone has experience," Barnes said. "We're all close as a group. Just the bond that we built, we can trust each other on anything. We have a lot of playmakers on the field at one time so I think we'll be fine."