Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett
About a week before spring practice began, Connor Barwin got a phone call from his tight ends coach at Cincinnati. Head coach Brian Kelly wanted to see Barwin in his office.
Barwin figured Kelly would talk to him about leadership or something along those lines. Instead, Kelly had a radical idea. He was going to move Barwin to defensive end.
Never mind that Barwin had spent his first three years catching passes and blocking and hadn't played defense since high school. Kelly saw something that could work.
What Kelly saw, in essence, was South Florida's George Selvie, the reigning Big East defensive player of the year. Selvie played center in high school before switching to defensive end two years ago, and he used his athleticism and effort to terrorize offenses last season.
"You look at George Selvie, and he was 230 pounds on a good day," Kelly said. "But the thing that made George special was his motor kept going, and he'd catch you sooner or later. Connor's the same way at 255 pounds. He's just relentless. We needed to infuse that kind of energy on our defense."
Barwin probably won't match Selvie's 14.5 sacks from a year ago, but so far the experiment has been a success. After working to learn the position all spring and summer, he'll start at defensive end for the Bearcats in Thursday's opener against Eastern Kentucky.
"He's been more than what we expected," Kelly said.
He showed his fierce competitiveness during a scrimmage earlier this month, crashing through a block and hitting starting quarterback Dustin Grutza in the ribs. Grutza missed a few days of practice after that.
Kelly said NFL scouts have begun to pay close attention to Barwin as a defensive end prospect. That helps him overcome his initial doubts about changing positions before his senior year.
"I like it because I'm on the field a lot," Barwin said. "Playing tight end in (Kelly's spread) offense isn't exactly the most important position on the field, but defensive end is one of the most important positions on the defense. And in the NFL, the tight end is on some teams a part-time position, while defensive end is huge. That's how he got me to buy into it."
Barwin said he has watched some tapes on Selvie but has mostly tried to pattern his game after former Florida State defensive end Kamerion Wimbley, the 13th-overall pick in the 2006 NFL Draft by the Cleveland Browns. Barwin and Wimbley are almost the exact same size.
"I can play physical against those left tackles, but that won't be my No. 1 option," Barwin said. "I'll be trying to run around them as much as possible and use my speed."
One of the best athletes on the team, Barwin is used to switching gears. In 2005, he joined the Bearcats basketball team that was depleted after coach Bob Huggins' departure. He played a large role as a backup forward for 16 games. He appeared in 23 games in 2006 before deciding to concentrate solely on football.
"I always miss it," he said of basketball. "But it's more fun being out here and being able to push guys around."
Barwin caught 31 passes for 399 yards and two touchdowns last year and would have been the Big East's most productive returning tight end. He'll still be featured in some goal-line, three-tight end sets. Kelly has told him that if he's playing at an All-Big East level by midseason, he can have a larger role in the offense.
"I told Dustin that's why I hit him," Barwin joked. "I was in on the goal line for three plays and he didn't throw me a touchdown pass. Now he'll remember."
When this year is over, perhaps Barwin will be remembered as the Big East's next breakthrough defensive star.