By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Will Barker can make some money Saturday at Scott Stadium. If he’s successful, his payday won’t come until after the next NFL draft, but a rare opportunity awaits UVa’s starting right offensive tackle.
Barker’s assignment is straightforward — keep Jerry Hughes from getting to the quarterback — but it won’t be easy.
Hughes, a 6-3, 257-pound senior at Texas Christian University, might be the top defensive end in college football.
He led the nation with 15 sacks and was named an All-American last season. Hughes starts at left end, which means he’ll be trying to get through or around the 6-7, 320-pound Barker in No. 16 TCU’s opener.
“He’s definitely one of the better ends I’ve gone against, if not the best,” said Barker, a four-year starter. “He’s a hell of a player.”
And if Barker limits Hughes’ impact on the game? The NFL will notice. About a half-dozen scouts are expected to be at the stadium Saturday, and they’ll be watching Barker and Hughes closely.
“Both will be on teams’ lists,” Cavaliers coach Al Groh said. “This will be one of those games that for each player will give him an opportunity to [increase his stock].”
Groh cited Eugene Monroe’s performance against Georgia Tech last season. Monroe, then UVa’s starting left tackle, dominated his battles with the Yellow Jackets’ outstanding defensive ends, Michael Johnson and Derrick Morgan.
That’s one reason Monroe became the eighth player selected in this year’s NFL draft. Johnson was taken in the third round.
“Certainly the way Eugene performed in that game enabled him to solidify his draft status,” Groh said. “That is, the scouts could look at him and say, ‘OK, he’s blocked a certain amount of players, but they are never going be to NFL pass-rushers. Here is a guy who is touted as an NFL pass-rusher, and [Monroe] really dealt with him.'”
Inconsistency has been a problem for Barker, who has yet to earn All-ACC recognition, but he distinguished himself in Atlanta last year, too. In fact, the ACC honored Barker, not Monroe, as its offensive lineman of the week after UVa’s upset of No. 21 Georgia Tech.
Barker did not allow a sack and helped Virginia total 270 yards passing and 126 rushing.
He’s now Virginia’s most experienced lineman. He knows NFL scouts are watching. He knows, too, that his team needs him to play well week in and week out. If Barker does that, the money will follow.
“The team comes first,” he said.
Hughes, who’s from Sugar Land, Texas, was a star running back in high school, and speed remains his trademark.
“He brings a lot of that explosiveness off the edge that players are not used to seeing,” Groh said, but Hughes has other assets.
“He comes off the edge with speed to start with, but he converts it into a lot of power when he gets cut off,” Groh said.
To simulate Hughes’ speed, Groh has run defensive backs at Barker in pass-blocking drills this week. The big redhead from Bryn Mawr, Pa., faces the real thing Saturday.
“It’s a challenge, and I welcome it,” Barker said. “For my own sake, it’s kind of a meter of where I am and how good I am.”