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Rookie grows into his NFL role

OSU's Nick Barnett 'blessed' in his first year with Green Bay

A year ago, Nick Barnett was a talented but undersized senior outside linebacker at Oregon State, hoping to play well enough to merit a chance to make an NFL roster.

On Sunday, as Green Bay takes on Philadelphia at Lincoln Financial Field, Barnett will be in the middle of the Packers' defense as linebacker. And a cherished one, at that.

The 6-2, 235-pound Barnett has enjoyed a remarkable first pro season, starting all 17 games, including the Packers' overtime playoff victory over Seattle last Sunday at Lambeau Field. He led Green Bay in tackles this season, twice won NFL rookie of the week awards and once was NFC defensive player of the week. He was third in official voting for NFL rookie of the year and is one of five finalists for the rookie of the year award voted by fans on NFL.com. He also is an alternate for the Pro Bowl.

'I have been truly blessed to have the opportunities I have had,' says Barnett, the first OSU player taken in the first round of the NFL draft since Terry Baker in 1963. 'And the season is not done. More important than anything is making the playoffs, winning last week and helping us advance even further.'

Barnett came to Oregon State in Dennis Erickson's first recruiting class in 1999 as a 195-pound receiver/safety who was offered scholarships by three schools Ñ OSU, San Jose State and Nevada-Las Vegas. After one season as a strong safety, he moved to linebacker as a sophomore and started six games for the Beavers' Fiesta Bowl champions. Barnett was a full-time starter his final two years and was all-Pacific-10 Conference as a senior in 2002.

Still, at less than 220 pounds last fall, he was small for an NFL linebacker. So he set about gaining 18 pounds in the offseason.

'I didn't want the scouts to think I was a 'tweener (between safety and linebacker),' Barnett says. 'I had to put on weight to kill that notion off. Luckily, I retained my speed. If anything, I got a little faster.'

The added size convinced at least one important person that Barnett was big enough to play in the middle. Last winter, Green Bay coach Mike Sherman came to Corvallis to put several OSU prospects through personal workouts.

'When Coach Sherman left that day, he told people, 'I have my middle linebacker,' ' Barnett says.

Holds defense together

From Green Bay's first preseason game, Barnett has been the starter. As a rookie, he has been a team leader of an improved defense.

'Nick has been amazing,' punter Josh Bidwell says. 'I'm disappointed he wasn't the rookie of the year. He's had a huge impact on our team and has really been the glue that keeps the defense together.'

Place-kicker Ryan Longwell says he has been most impressed with Barnett's attitude.

'Nick is more humble than any first-rounder I have seen,' Longwell says. 'He's worked his tail off, and the guy has by far the fastest motor I have seen in the NFL. He is constantly at full speed. His quick learning curve has helped our defense improve a ton.'

Barnett nearly had a moment suitable for framing in last week's 33-27 win over Seattle, grabbing an apparent third-quarter fumble by Seahawk quarterback Matt Hasselbeck and scurrying 70 yards to pay dirt. After review, the play was ruled an incomplete pass, and the touchdown was nullified.

'In college, that's a fumble,' Barnett says. 'His arm was going forward, but he pulled back because I had coverage on the receiver's route. When the ball released from his hand, I thought, 'OK, let's scoop this up and go.' I thought I had the touchdown and made the 'Lambeau leap.' Too bad.'

In the fourth quarter, Barnett was called for pass interference on a third-down play near the Green Bay goal line. On the next play, Seattle scored the touchdown that forced overtime.

'I don't think I touched (the receiver) that much, but I let the referee make the call,' Barnett says. 'I was very upset at the time. I didn't want to be the reason we lost a playoff game.'

Tracked the Beavers

Barnett says he closely followed Oregon State's season and watched as the Beavers pummeled New Mexico in the Las Vegas Bowl.

'That was crazy,' Barnett says. 'Those guys had a good season. I watched as many games as I could see. They could have won that Washington State game, for sure, but I was glad they finished like they did in the bowl game.'

With the likes of James Allen (playing for New Orleans), Barnett and senior Richard Seigler, coach Mike Riley says it wouldn't be unfitting for Oregon State to be called Linebacker U.

'I heard about that, and he's right,' Barnett says, chuckling. 'Richard is going to make it in the NFL, period, and they have other great linebackers down there, like Jonathan Pollard and Trent Bray.'

Barnett says his personal goal is simple: 'I want to be the best middle linebacker in the game. That is what is in my heart.'

But he wants to make something clear.

'Team goals come first,' he says, 'and we're two wins away from the Super Bowl. We have some momentum going right now, and we're looking forward to doing what we can to beat the Eagles and move on.'