UNIVERSITY PARK - Penn State defensive end Deion Barnes burst upon the Big Ten landscape like a rocket as a redshirt freshman last year.
Barnes was named Thompson-Randle El Big Ten Freshman of the Year, was a freshman All-American, was named to the Big Ten All-Freshman team by ESPN.com and BTN.com and was an honorable mention All-Big Ten pick by the coaches and the media.
If his rise to the top and Jordan Hill's departure doesn't get the attention of opposing offensive coordinators, nothing will. Barnes could be a headache for opposing offenses, who will most likely target him for double teams and take their chances with the Nittany Lions' other young and inexperienced linemen.
"With Coach [John] Butler's defense, I don't seem them being able to really set a target," Barnes said on media day. "He does a great job of disguising and putting people in different places, so I don't really think they can completely double team me like that, but they will."
"I think any time you have a guy as a freshman get all the accolades he had, guys are going to find a way to try to stop him," defensive line coach Larry Johnson said. "But, we have three other guys who have to get it done. Those guys are going to have some one-on-ones, so we have to make sure we're ready to go. If Deion is getting double-teamed, we have to have guys who can pick us up."
Barnes made 26 tackles last year, but 10 were for loss, and he made six sacks, leading the team in tackles for loss and sacks. Talk to his coaches and teammates, and they say Barnes, who comes in at 6-foot-4, 245 pounds, will be improved over last season.
"Football is very, very important to him," coach Bill O'Brien said. "It's something that he has a passion for. Secondly, he's an excellent athlete. He's big, strong, and he's become even more stronger and more physical in our weight room. I believe he'll play the run better this year. He's worked hard on that in the offseason. He can rush the passer. Everybody knows that. I'm very glad he's on our team."
"Before we talked about just how to get to the quarterback," senior defensive tackle DaQuan Jones said, "and now he's just talking about technique stuff. So, to see him grow in that aspect is a good thing."
"This year everybody on the outside is expecting me to do more," Barnes said. "I'm going to be able to make more plays. My role when I'm on the field is to do my job and make sure everything is efficient. They expect me to sharpen my tools way better than I did last year."
Last year, Hill was the lineman who drew the double teams, and he was still able to make 64 tackles, including 8 1/2 for loss. Hill, drafted by the Seattle Seahawks, was named to the All-Big Ten Team by the coaches and the media and a second-team All-American by Athlon Sports.
"You can't replace somebody like Jordan," defensive end C.J. Olaniyan said. "We just have to make sure as a D-line, we're doing everything we can to improve our skills individually so we can come together and improve as a team."
"You don't replace him," Johnson said. "You don't replace any great player. You just say 'Next guy up. Let's go.' No one is going to have the skill set like Jordan Hill, but they'll have their own set of skill sets, and that's all we can ask."
O'Brien projected Barnes and the 6-3, 244-pound Olaniyan (15 tackles last year) on the outside and the 6-3, 318-pound Jones (22 tackles), 6-5, 281-pound redshirt junior Kyle Baublitz and 6-4, 302-pound redshirt freshman Austin Johnson rotating in on the inside.
He said Barnes and Olaniyan could be backed by young guys like redshirt freshman Evan Schwan and true freshmen Curtis Cothran and Garrett Sickels.
"We feel decent about the depth," O'Brien said.
"Honestly, we can be as good as we want to be," Jones said. "We have a lot of great potential in the room, and it's just a matter of how much work we put into training camp."
Whether it's a successful unit or not will be up for debate for awhile until it can prove itself, but the players seem like a tight-knit, fun-loving group. As Jones was being interviewed on media day, his linemates were singing R. Kelly's song "I Believe I Can Fly."
"Yeah," Jones said looking over his shoulder with a smile, "it's a lyrical group. It's a comedy. In the meeting rooms, it's pretty fun to be around these guys."