UNIVERSITY PARK - Penn State players speak with great respect about Deion Barnes, an enormously talented rising sophomore defensive end who looks every bit the part of a future NFL standout.
"He's unreal," said right tackle Adam Gress, who lines up against Barnes every day in practice. "He's just one of the best defensive ends I've played against, not just here but against other teams."
"For Deion, the sky's the limit," safety Malcolm Willis said. "He's going to be as good as he wants to be."
Barnes doesn't want to be just good, he wants to be great. He took the first steps toward that during an impressive freshman season, and he's counting on even better things from himself this fall.
"It's basically like motivation for me," Barnes said of the high expectations being thrown his way. "It just lets me know I can't slack off at all. I have to be on top of my game every game."
Barnes was named Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 2012 after leading the Nittany Lions with six sacks and 10 tackles for loss. Ask those who follow PSU football closely about the best NFL prospect on the current roster, and Barnes' name will come up frequently, along with offensive tackle Donovan Smith and receiver Allen Robinson.
Barnes, a 6-foot-4, 244-pounder from Philadelphia, isn't about to let all the hype go to his head and lead to a sophomore slump.
"I haven't thought about it because I don't think that's going to happen," Barnes said. "[Defensive line coach Larry] Johnson basically told me, 'There's going to be more pressure on you,' but I think if I play at the level I did last year and exceed that, I don't think there will be a slump at all."
Barnes doesn't want to be known just as a pass rusher and realizes there were times last season when he was out of position against the run. Improving that aspect of his game is a priority this year.
"Certain techniques, sometimes it would be a slant, I would turn my hips and get my hips pushed down and create bigger holes," Barnes said. "Sometimes teams would run at me and send tight ends and tackles at me. I don't want that to be a weakness to where people will be like, 'We're going to run at [No.] 18 because we know he's a pass rusher and he can't stop the run.'"
Barnes also noticed watching game film from last year that he missed out on about four sacks, which would have given him 10.
"Even though I had six sacks, I had a lot of mistakes," he said before adding, "I would beat the guy, get shook by the quarterback, slip or something like that."
Even though he was honored as the league's top freshman, Barnes wasn't satisfied with his own play. That's the kind of attribute that can only make him better.
"He's not satisfied with just having one year and being done," Willis said. "He wants to keep doing it, he wants to be the best defensive end in the country. A guy like that with his work ethic, you have to respect it because he's so talented but he's not satisfied at all. We'll see how many more numbers he'll put up this year."
Gress knows better than anyone how challenging it can be going up against Barnes.
"What makes Deion a good player is he's hard-nosed and he's always got a full tank of gas," Gress said. "He's never slowing up, he's never taken an off rep."
Despite being one of Penn State's best returning players, surprisingly, Barnes said he was not contacted by any other schools over the winter about possibly transferring. PSU players are allowed to transfer until August without having to sit out a year, as part of the NCAA sanctions.
Like most players on the team, Barnes has benefited from Penn State's new strength and conditioning program. A couple of more years in that can only help him even more.
"The biggest thing about this spring compared to last season is he's bigger, faster and stronger," Gress said.
Barnes, who redshirted in 2011, seems well aware of the increased expectations for him this season. He was able to fly under the radar as a freshman, but now every opponent will know who he is and will game plan even more to try and nullify him.
It will be up to Barnes, then, to make the adjustments necessary so that he can have a major impact despite being more of a focal point for offensive lines.
"A couple games I might have a bad game last year, people wouldn't think nothing about it," Barnes said. "But if I have a bad game this year, people will be like, 'What happened to Deion? He's not the same. Is this a sophomore slump or something like that?' So it makes me realize I have to be on top of my game every game."