Versatile Barner, when healthy, makes life easier for coaches
EUGENE - In the poker game Jokers Wild, one card changes both the name and the purpose of the game.
So it is fitting that Oregon Ducks coach Chip Kelly thinks of Kenjon Barner as a potential joker in the team's deck of football players.
The 5-11, 195-pound junior running back -when healthy -can practically do it all on the football field: take a handoff, catch a pass, return a kick or even make a tackle.
'Kids like that, we call them jokers because a joker is good in any suit and any deck,' Kelly says. 'It can be any card for you. They can be a running back, they can be a receiver. And they come in all shapes and sizes. When you have days where all of a sudden there's a couple of wideouts banged up, well, we still have Kenjon.
'The more versatile that those guys are -where they're not one-position guys -it makes it a lot easier for you as a coaching staff.'
Barner, who is rocking a fohawk hairstyle for the second consecutive year, rarely cracks jokes, but he loves how Kelly thinks of him.
'I like it a lot,' Barner says. 'It's awesome of him to say that and to know that he trusts me enough to put me in those different positions and carry the rock. It's exciting.'
Barner has had little opportunity to show off all of his talents this season. He suffered a leg injury in the Ducks' opening loss against LSU and has not appeared since.
With the Ducks refusing to put out an injury report this season, it is impossible to know when Barner might return. But he was walking without a limp at practice this week as the Ducks prepared for their Pac-12 opener, 7:15 p.m. Saturday at Arizona.
'I feel good,' Barner says, adding with a smile that he is 'day to day.'
Even with the emergence of true freshman running back De'Anthony Thomas as a star with the ball in his hands, running backs coach Gary Campbell says that Barner has not necessarily lost his No. 2 spot on the running back depth chart behind LaMichael James.
'All of those guys are starters in my mind,' Campbell says. 'Kenjon has not been out on the field to show what he can do. Had he been on the field these past two games, he would've done some things that would've been very impressive.'
Barner is no stranger to coming back from injuries and playing well. He was plagued with injuries in 2010, but still had 91 carries for 551 yards and six touchdowns, caught 13 passes for 121 yards and two touchdowns, and scored another touchdown on a punt return.
During the offseason, Barner bulked up 18 pounds so that he could have an even bigger season.
But if his parents had had their way, Barner would have never stepped onto the gridiron. Barner grew up the youngest of five older brothers and an older sister in Riverside, Calif. Always small, he played point guard in grade school. His parents would not allow him to play football.
'I wanted to play football,' Barner says, 'but my mom, being a mother, wasn't going for it.'
Finally, when he got to high school, the chance of glory under the Friday night lights was too much for Barner to pass up. He went out for football. Weighing 120 pounds, he played varsity running back.
'My parents were scared, but they had no choice but to let me play because I wasn't going to stop playing,' he says.
During his four years at Notre Dame High, Barner gained 10,772 all-purpose yards, including 8,178 yards rushing, and scored 144 touchdowns.
When he came to Oregon, though, the Ducks saw Barner as a defensive back. He spent his redshirt freshman season learning the ins and outs of cornerback. Before the 2009 season, the Ducks coaches told Barner they wanted to move him back to running back.
'Most people probably wouldn't believe me, but I was very disappointed,' Barner says. 'I had just gotten a grasp of the corner position. I was fighting for a starting spot, so I felt extremely good at corner. It was a tough position to learn, but I had finally gotten it.
'To be taken away from that, I was just kind of like, 'Oh, man.' But then at the same time I was excited because going back to running back, that's what I wanted to come to college for, and that's what I felt like I was, and I finally got the opportunity. So it was a 50-50 situation.'
After seeing what he has done during the past two years, Barner could not be happier with the switch.
'I love it,' he says. 'I wouldn't have did it any other way. It's just been a great situation to be placed at. And I've been blessed, and I'm lucky to be here.'