Feb. 5, 2009
By JOSH KATZOWITZ
Connor Barwin sat on a bench on the Nippert Stadium turf after football practice a few weeks ago and leaned back. He looked comfortable, and he wasn’t eager to leave anytime soon. Just sit there in his sweaty pads and talk the dusk away.
He was reflecting on his former basketball career and how much he’d love to play in the NFL next season. He thought back to Andy Kennedy, and he talked about how accomplished he felt to play two sports at the Division I level at a BCS school.
A few years back, he probably wouldn’t have thought about what his football future held. He wasn’t going to be sitting here on a bench talking about his prospects. Instead, he was going to play on the hardwood.
“When I was in high school, I thought I was going to be a basketball player,” said Barwin, who attended University of Detroit Jesuit High School. “That didn’t work out. But the summer before my senior year, my football coach said I could definitely play college football. I put basketball aside, and I took football serious.”
Good thing for Barwin he made the switch. After his first four games as a senior high school player, a number of Mid-American Conference schools had offered him scholarships. Considering he hadn’t played as a sophomore because of a broken collarbone and had been suspended for half the year his junior season — mostly because he had accepted a car ride during a walk-a-thon fundraiser — this was a revelation to Barwin.
But he wanted more than to play for a mid-major program. He wanted the big-time.
“A lot of the bigger schools get their offers out when you’re a junior, so they were already done recruiting. That’s what I like to think anyway,” said Barwin with his typical good humor. “Coach (Mark) Dantonio saw my tape, and two days after he saw it, they called and offered me a scholarship. It was the biggest school I could go to, and I always thought I would go to the biggest school I could.”
His basketball career, though, was finished. Or so he thought. He was a football player now.
But after former basketball coach Bob Huggins was dismissed and with interim coach Kennedy desperate to fill out his roster, Barwin was invited to join the Bearcats basketball team.
He happily accepted, and in his first season as a reserve forward, he averaged nearly 10 minutes per game. His highlight of the year might have occurred when the Bearcats faced Pitt, and Barwin scored a career-high six points while recording a pair of rebounds and a blocked shot in 19 minutes of action.
For Barwin, it was an unreal experience.
“It probably never would have happened if Huggins hadn’t gotten fired and Armein Kirkland hadn’t gotten hurt,” Barwin said. “It was a huge blessing and opportunity.”
After UC hired Mick Cronin to run the basketball program, Barwin remained on the roster. As desperate as Kennedy was to have an extra body, it was imperative Cronin take anybody he could get. So Barwin stayed on for another season and he averaged 1.2 points and 1.4 rebounds per game.
How important was Barwin? In the last eight games of that season, he averaged 15.7 minutes per contest.
“I am so happy I did it,” Barwin said. “It was probably one of the coolest things I had done in college. I know it probably wouldn’t have happened if I went anywhere else. It was a huge blessing and a lot of luck.”
Well, maybe not as much luck as he thinks. Before Kennedy and his coaching staff departed UC to move on with the next phase of their respective careers, assistant coach Frank Martin — now the head coach at Kansas State — told Barwin that, in fact, he could have played for Huggins and that Huggins would have really liked to have had him on the team.
“I thought I could play at this level,” Barwin said. “If I didn’t play college football, I could have played basketball at this level and been a solid walk-on if I would have dedicated everything to it. But I would have been what I was — an energy guy for five to 10 minutes a game.”
Better, then, he stick to football, a sport in which he could make big money next year playing in the NFL.
Last year, Barwin was a part of the tight end rotation, but he wasn’t a standout. He was solid, recording 31 catches for 399 yards and two touchdowns, but with other tight ends in the mix this season — including Kazeem Alli, Ben Guidugli and Adrien Robinson — Coach Brian Kelly had other plans for him.
Instead of using his athleticism for a position where blocking receives more of the focus, Kelly wanted to move Barwin to the other side of the ball and let him roam free. Considering the Bearcats were losing defensive ends Angelo Craig and Anthony Hoke to graduation, Kelly needed a fast player with loads of stamina to replace them while trying to hunt down the opposing quarterback.
In spring ball, when Barwin was trying to acclimate to his new position, offensive lineman Khalil El-Amin could see the positive results of the switch.
“Connor Barwin is an outstanding athlete,” El-Amin said last April. “If you put that guy anywhere on the field, he can play that position. He’s big, strong and fast. He has a motor. He just doesn’t stop. A lot of guys, you wear on them throughout practice and games. Connor is going to be that guy who has the same amount of energy that he had in the first quarter.”
He’s put that energy to good use so far this season.
In one of the more impressive plays in a season full of them, Barwin found himself in a foot race with West Virginia quarterback Pat White during the Nov. 8 contest in Morgantown. It was a former tight end vs. a signal-caller who might be the most-feared player in the Big East because of his ability to make plays with his feet.
As White attempted to cut to the outside, turn a corner and blow past the UC defense, Barwin chased him down early in the fourth quarter of the Bearcats’ 26-23 overtime victory. Officials penalized Barwin for tackling White with an illegal horsecollar, but that didn’t diminish the impressiveness of the play.
“His motor is unbelievable,” Kelly said. “He chased down Pat White. That’s a hard guy to chase down. There’s not a lot of people in the country that can chase him down. His stock is going through the roof in terms of what he can do for us.”
When Kelly grades out his players, he assigns them each a number between 1 and 4. If you’re a 1, you’re a guy who isn’t playing well. If you’re a 2, you’re a guy who’s giving good effort but not on a consistent level. If you’re a 3, you’re playing at an all-conference level and you represent the program in a positive way. If you’re a 4, you’re a 3 that has the added ability to make your teammates better.
In Kelly’s two years at UC, Barwin is his first 4. That is the impact Barwin has made on this team this season, even while learning a new position.
Not bad for a mid-major basketball player.
“All of it,” Barwin said, “has definitely been worth it.”
(This story was previously released in the Bearcat Sports Digest.)