MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Jared Barber hasn’t worn a knee brace this spring, proof his mental recovery from a torn ACL is keeping pace with the physical healing.
Working through the body traffic in the middle of West Virginia’s defense, he’s not calculating the odds of another injury.
“If it’s going to happen again, it’s going to happen again,” Barber said.
The fifth-year senior, coming off a redshirt season spent limping along the sidelines, wants to be relied upon again, wants to feel necessary. He’s one of 10 returnees with starting experience, elevating expectations the Mountaineers might be recognized for their defense for a change.
“We want to be a top-10 defense in the country this year, and I really think we can reach the goal,” Barber said.
After playing weakside linebacker in Keith Patterson’s 3-4 defense in 2013—and finishing third on the team with 71 tackles—Barber is working inside and manning the Mike linebacker for Tony Gibson’s 3-3-5 stack. It seems a perfect fit for a guy who understands his limitations yet makes stops through instinct and preparation.
“I’m not the most athletic or fastest player there is, but you put me in the middle,” he said. “I’m really good at studying film, working hard and I think I have good vision tackle to tackle.”
Barber likens himself to Reed Williams, the consummate tough-guy overachiever who played for the Mountaineers from 2005-2009. Their dimensions virtually identical (same 232-pound playing weight and both standing a shade over 6-foot), Williams also missed the bulk of a season with shoulder surgery before returning as a senior.
“He’d work his butt off play after play,” Barber recalled.
The work required to bring Barber back to football wasn’t easy. Driven by strength coaches Mike Joseph and Darl Bauer to rebuild strength in the injured leg, Barber underscored the rehab experience with a laugh.
“We got after it in the training room,” he said.
Thursday marks exactly 17 months since the last time Barber appeared in a game. The 47-40 loss to Texas on Nov. 9, 2013, was in overtime when a Longhorns blocking back got into the knee and tore the ACL.
Within weeks after surgery, Barber dealt with another obstacle: Methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, a surgical-site infection that’s typically undeterred by common antibiotics. Doctors ran a catheter to Barber’s heart, pumping different types of IVs in hopes of fighting the infection.
“The doctors said if that didn’t work, they didn’t know what they would do,” Barber said. “It was a pretty scary time.”
So scary that returning to football became a low priority. With his knee locked in the fully-extended zero position for several months, he said, “I was really focused on life, just walking around, and hopefully one day when I have kids, playing with them. Football wasn’t even talked about, really. It was just getting through it.”
By the time the infection subsided and Barber began regaining flexibility, he knew the 2014 season was lost. Still, he made enough improvement to participate in Liberty Bowl workouts, a return that didn’t initially inspire much confidence.
Recalling his walk toward the indoor facility for a rainy-day practice last December, Barber admitted, “I was kind of shaking a little bit, kind of nervous.”
Five months later, however, he claims he rarely thinks about the knee injury, save for the times reporters ask about it.
Barber’s play has so impressed Gibson he was able to slide last season’s tackle leader Nick Kwiatkoski to outside linebacker. Head coach Dana Holgorsen join the praise parade before last Saturday’s scrimmage at Shepherd University, raving of Barber: “He looks great. He’s in shape and motivated.”
Barber traded in his No. 33 West Virginia jersey for 42, the number he wore while making 529 career tackles at Davie High in Mocksville, N.C. The jersey change, he said, was made “to go back to my roots,” a starting-over point for a guy who doesn’t want to play with caution, or a brace. The injury that shelved him for 2014 is old news, and he’s back in the fray for 2015, feeling “like it never even happened.”