It wasn't always easy for Georgia Tech's mountainous nose tackle T.J. Barnes. Battling weight, veteran players and the challenges of college life, Barnes slowly worked himself in a starting position and he seems primed for a special final year on the Flats.
Barnes slowly climbed the depth chart for spot play as the third defensive tackle to becoming the backup and now finds himself as the starter heading into fall camp. Heading into the 2012 season Barnes is now the guy at nose tackle for the Jackets and he is embracing that role.
"It is crazy seeing where I came from. As a freshman, I was behind Daryl Richard, Vance Walker and Elris Anyaibe. Now I am the lead guy and it is kind of crazy, but it has been worth waiting for," Barnes said. "Seeing everyone in front of me doing well motivated me and hopefully I will do better than they did."
After Logan Walls graduated, Barnes finds himself as the only experienced nose tackle on the team and he has embraced his role as a leader to young players as well as the expectation levels set by defensive line coach Andy McCollum and defensive coordinator Al Groh.
"With time comes experience and I have tried to establish my role as the starter now and really learn the defense. I have spent a lot of time focusing on what Coach Groh wants me to do," Barnes said. "The real focus has been trying to establish myself as a long lasting player and do whatever I can to help the team."
A slimmed down Barnes appeared at the start of spring camp weighing around 335-pounds down from the nearly 350-pound weight he carried in January. Barnes has continued to trim and tone his large frame and hopes to play at around 330 this fall.
"I am in the best shape I've been in at Tech and a lot of that is hard work in the offseason and me realizing where I was at physically and where I needed to be," he said.
The spring also bolstered Barnes' confidence and he became more of playmaker in Tech's practices. Barnes says that success has really provided an extra spark for workouts and motivation for the upcoming season.
"Once you work hard and start seeing things develop and you start to make more plays you realize you are not that tired. That gives me more motivation to work hard in the offseason and summer so I can be in even better shape and be ready for Virginia Tech," Barnes said.
After glowing reviews this spring, Barnes has also become a potential NFL draft target, but the shy tackle says he is trying to keep everything in perspective for the upcoming season.
"I think about my future and the NFL at times, but I am really focused on trying to help us win and win one game at time and put us in position to compete for the ACC Championship again," he said.
Barnes and the Jackets defense will face a tough test out of the gate on September 3 when they face Virginia Tech in Blacksburg.