Minnesota junior A.J. Barker ranks fifth in the Big Ten in receiving yards per game, with 19 catches for 357 yards and four scores. If you saw that kind of success coming for Barker this year, you must be a psychic. He was a little known commodity coming into the season, having played in only six games and boasting one career catch before 2012. And he's a walk-on.
I recently caught up with the St. Paul, Minn., native to find out his story for this week's Friday Q&A:
How have things been going up there with the bye week last week?
A.J. Barker: It was good. We've gotten a lot of fresh legs under us, gotten healed up and are ready to go.
How quickly were you able to bounce back from the loss to Iowa before the bye?
AB: It was tough. You never want to lose any game but we've got a really good, consistent coaching staff, and they got us refocused really quickly and the guys just bought into that. We had a great week of practice last week and a great week of practice this week, so I think we bounced back real well.
Let's talk about your background. Did you grow up a Gophers fan?
AB: Yep. With it being the only D-I school in Minnesota, it's kind of tough not to.
What kind of recruiting interest did you draw out of high school?
AB: I had some lower Division I schools, some FCS schools, that showed some interest. But I made it pretty clear early on that I was going to try and walk on in the Big Ten, and when I got that opportunity I wasn't going to miss it.
So did you have any actual scholarship offers from FBS schools?
AB: It's hard to say whether any would have offered me or not. I was pretty honest in the process and told them, "Hey, I'm going to come to Minnesota." And once I got into school that's what I did. Around my junior year, I was thinking about whether I wanted to try to play basketball or football in college. I thought I could be a great football player, and I wanted to go after it. I wanted to stay home and come to Minnesota. And I was able to execute that plan, which has been awesome.
You redshirted your first year, played a little the next year and then got hurt, right?
AB: Yeah, last year, my redshirt sophomore season, I tore my hamstring in camp. It set me back. It was a slower recovery than I wanted it to be.
So it's safe to say that you were a little under the radar coming into this season.
AB: I knew people had no idea who I was. I know this is a little thing, but I remember seeing a poll about Gophers receivers, and there were 12 receivers listed and I wasn't even listed as one of the 12. So I was like, "Huh. All right, well, we've got to prove them wrong."
Jerry Kill said a couple of weeks ago that you play with a chip on your shoulder. Do you agree?
AB: Oh yeah. I'm a hungry competitor. I feel like I've played that way my whole life. Yeah, I do feel like I play with a chip on my shoulder but I've always really competed with a chip on my shoulder.
How much does being a walk-on and not getting much recognition motivate you?
AB: It's a big driver. You know, not having anyone in the outside world -- my family and my friends trust me -- but in the outside world, you're really kind of ridiculed. It's kind of like, "Oh, you're a walk-on. Good luck." You just sit there, and you really can't say anything either, because the reality is that most [walk-ons] don't pan out. You just bite your tongue and let it fuel you. Just go to work and chip away. The hardest part is when you're going to work, you don't see those rewards. Even when you're doing good things, you don't get that positive feedback. It's a struggle. But luckily for me, it just kept fueling and fueling me. I got angrier and more aggressive about it and was able to control that aggression through it. So it's paid off.
You went out in the opener and had a 100-yard game against UNLV. How good did it feel to do that?
AB: It felt real good. It's what I thought I could do. I'm not going to say I never doubted myself. But getting to the point where it was actually happening, it was awesome. It was awesome for me, awesome for my family It just seemed like there was so much time where you were like, "Man, I want to believe it will work out but it doesn't look right." You can't really see the light at the end of the tunnel. Then it comes on quickly like that, because it really comes on fast. I mean, we're flying to UNLV and I don't know if I'm even going to play and all of a sudden, I'm making plays and it's like,"boom." This is what I had hoped for, and now it's here, so now you've got to run with it. It's been a rollercoaster.
How has that changed things for you? Are you recognized a lot more on campus now?
AB: I get a lot more texts, from tons of people. But I like to be pretty low key when I'm going to class, so I don't get much attention. I prefer it that way.
What parts of your game have improved the last couple of years?
AB: I just think in terms of processing the game, everything goes hand in hand. You can't just process, and you can't just be fast. So the combination of my game speed, my strength and my processing has all been able to raise. Just getting everything to come up is what's brought me up the most.
There were lots of questions about the offense and the receivers in particular this offseason. How do you think you guys have come along so far this season?
AB: I think the offense is coming along really well. We're developing and getting a feel for what we can do and what some of our limitations may be, and I feel really confident about what we're going to be doing going forward. There have been some rough patches, but you chip away and right now we're in a very good position going forward with the offense. I think we can do a lot of damage.
AB: It will be interesting to see. It's not a secret that it's been tough for schools in the past to handle two quarterbacks, and that's for the coaches to decide which one plays or whether they both play. I think we as a team need to take that on as a new challenge, as if we have to discover the answer, discover a positive answer. That's going to be a huge sign of our team's maturity. Hopefully, we take that on and run with it.
Finally, has there been much discussion about putting you on scholarship?
AB: No, it doesn't come up. I've read some things in the newspaper, but other than that, no. I'm just here to go to work.