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Barner stays focused on yards, not awards

UO's leading rusher says he won't get distracted by hype


EUGENE — All eyes are on Oregon’s Kenjon Barner these days, and he enjoys it.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Kenjon Barner eludes the USC defense on a jaunt down the sidelines, as the Oregon Ducks beat the Trojans 62-51.He’s honored and humbled to be considered one of college football’s elite running backs, and a Heisman Trophy candidate.

He’s also hungry, and not full of himself.

Growing up in Riverside, Calif., Barner says he witnessed too many guys buy into their own hype. He chose not to go down the same path, even as a prolific running back at Notre Dame High. He watched as LaMichael James, without buying into the national acclaim, played through a Heisman finalist campaign (2010) and another stellar year (2011). Barner could rocket to full-fledged stardom by season’s end, but he’ll keep everything in perspective.

“You hear it, but you ignore it,” he says, of Heisman talk. “You could be completely out of the race next week. You have to stay grounded, stay humble, continue to work for what you’re working for ...” — meaning another Pac-12 championship.

“(Hype) won’t get to me. It comes with maturity and being mentally tough. If you’re mentally weak, it’ll get to you. If you’re not focused on what you’re supposed to be focused on, you’ll get distracted. I don’t plan on getting distracted any time soon.”

Entering Saturday’s game at California, Barner has rushed for 1,295 yards on 7.2 yards per carry (a yard better than his already stellar career average entering the season), with 20 total touchdowns.

With five potential games left, he might be staring at a 2,000-yard season, which would be an Oregon record — James had 1,805 last season.

Barner’s 321-yard game in last week’s 62-51 win at USC was one for the ages, but he considers the Rose Bowl performance in January 2010 his best. He had 227 all-purpose yards in the loss to Ohio State, including 160 yards on eight kickoff returns and 64 yards rushing on seven carries.

Barner has played only three four-quarter games this season — the USC spectacle, Fresno State (201 rushing yards, three TDs) and Washington State (95 rushing yards, three scores).

It was during the WSU game that running backs Gary Campbell essentially called Barner soft — or at least that was the senior’s interpretation of the motivational tactic.

“Call me anything you want, but don’t call me soft,” Barner says. “It stuck with me. I’m glad that he did it.”

Barner showed off all his physical and mental talents against USC, helped by some outstanding offensive line and perimeter blocking.

“We’ve just got to keep him healthy,” offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich says.

Does such a game motivate him to do it again?

Says Barner: “I don’t need that to motivate me.”

n Kyle Long, the 6-7, 300-pound junior college transfer and son of former NFL great Howie Long (and brother of St. Louis Rams’ defensive lineman Chris Long), started and played much of the USC game at left guard.

“Kyle did a great job,” says QB Marcus Mariota, who threw for 304 yards and four scores and rushed for 96 yards against the Trojans. “Awesome job.”

It was Long’s first-ever game at guard. He was recruited to Oregon as an offensive tackle. Last week was the first time he practiced at guard. Ryan Clanton and Mana Greig (injured) had been playing the position; Carson York was lost for the season. Clearly, putting the big Long fellow on the offensive line increases the Ducks’ blocking girth.

“I was excited for the opportunity. Anything I can do to help the team,” Long says. “There was a learning curve at the beginning when I came in as a tackle. We like to see the game through one set of eyes on the offensive line, and I feel that we showed that (versus USC). We did a great job of sticking to our game plan, our guns.”

Long enjoyed being part of Oregon’s school-record 730 yards offense and Barner’s record night.

“I feel like I was giving him high-fives the whole time,” Long says. “We’re all gassed, and he’s flying down the field. Exciting to be part of a great performance and a great win. Hopefully we can get ready for Cal.”

The play of Long and his O-line mates helped Oregon achieve one of the most remarkable feats ever: averaging 79.2 yards on their first eight touchdown scoring drives.

n The Ducks (9-0, 6-0 Pac-12) take their show on the road again, playing at Cal (3-7, 2-5) at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at revamped Memorial Stadium. It’s where the Ducks lost in 2004, 2006 and 2008, and barely won in 2010 — 15-13 in the Ducks’ closest game en route to the BCS national championship game — but they’ll be heavily favored against the struggling Bears. Quarterback Zach Maynard hurt his knee (and was replaced by junior Allan Bridgford), star receiver Keenan Allen (knee) has been out, and the Bears have lost three consecutive games.

Still, the Bears’ defense put a shrieking halt to UO’s offense in 2010 until a fourth-quarter Duck drive iced the UO victory.

Barner says the Bears play physically, with speed, and use different tactics on the defensive line to apply pressure.

He says the Ducks will be ready for the game “because of who they are: Cal. Every year we play them, it’s a tough game.”

n Speaking of hurting — the Ducks’ defensive line, was considerably beat up after facing USC’s physicality. Dion Jordan, Wade Keliikipi, Ricky Heimuli and Isaac Remington are injured, which means coaches could call on redshirting freshman Alex Balducci, from Central Catholic, to play some snaps. Balducci, listed at 6-4, 275 pounds but purportedly bigger, has been impressive in practices, the Ducks say.

“He’s smart, listens,” D-lineman Taylor Hart says. “He’s big. When he first came in here, we were all, ‘Wow,’ how big he is. He’s a big kid.”

The Bears have good running backs in C.J. Anderson and Iso Sofele. After facing a barrage of offense against USC (615 yards, 51 points), it’ll be interesting to see how the UO defense, in particular the defensive line, responds against Cal.

n Michael Clay’s friend and fellow linebacker, Kiko Alonso, also is still nursing an injury (wrist), although Alonso had 10 tackles, an interception and many attempts at trying to get to QB Matt Barkley against the Trojans.

The UO defenders are smarting somewhat, after the Trojans passed and ran all game against them. Clay says the Ducks have focused on fundamentals — running to the ball, tackling, plugging gaps — to try to get better. Clay missed several tackles on running backs Silas Redd and Curtis McNeal.

“I didn’t have good leverage, they got around me, broke through arm tackles,” he says.

The UO defensive letdowns didn’t get Clay down — “We got the win at the (L.A.) coliseum in a game of that magnitude,” he says. He also discounts any suggestion that fatigue played a part in the game, saying that the Ducks “signed up to play all 60 minutes. We know what we’re getting ourselves into.”