Cajun receiver Barnes loves the lights

Tim Buckley

For Keenan Barnes, it’s all about performing under the lights.

UL Keenan Barnes lands in the end zone after a touchdown catch against Boise State earlier this season.

The brighter the better.

But before doing what he has been lately — three touchdowns in four games starting at wideout in his sophomore season at UL, including a doozy in last Saturday’s four-overtime loss at Tulane — Barnes had to grow accustomed to the shine.

That came last year, when the product of Madison Central High in Madison, Mississippi, appeared in nine games as a true freshman for the Ragin’ Cajuns — mostly on special teams, but also at receiver.

The experience gained then helped ease Barnes’ transition from limited-role reserve to key starter in a Cajun offense that could be in shootout when it visits New Mexico State on Saturday night.

“It was a big difference,” he said of stepping onto the field this season, “just knowing that you’ve been in that position before, that you’ve played under these lights — the same lights from last year.

“It plays a big role in calming you down and just going out there and playing ball.”

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The 6-foot-3, 208-pound Barnes got his first inkling that he would play as a true freshman when wideout Jared Johnson, then-Cajun slot receiver Lance Pace and receiver Jarrod Jackson all sustained season-ending injuries during the first week or so of preseason camp last year.

A few weeks later, it hit Barnes for certain — and was rather easy to accept — that there would be no redshirt for him.

Not long after, he felt like he belonged.

“It kind of happened after fall camp, and I started making plays,” Barnes said, “and I was like, ‘OK, I can play with these guys.’

“It was kind of one of (those) things were I took advantage of my opportunities, and I just ran from there.”

Barnes, in fact, caught a pass — a 21-yarder — in UL’s 2015 season-opener win over Northwestern State.

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As a 4-8 campaign unfolded, he waited and mostly watched while getting his toes wet — making sure to soak in all he could from those around him.

“It was very beneficial,” Barnes said, “playing behind Jamal Robinson and Devin Scott and just having that camaraderie we had to learn from them.

“They kind of jelled me into the offense, jelled me into college.”

Barnes kept an especially close eye on Robinson, who earlier this NFL season spent a few days on the practice squad of the Jacksonville Jaguars before subsequently being released.

From Robinson, Barnes said, he learned a lot of “intangibles.”

“How to make plays. … and just the stuff that film doesn’t teach you, and that you can’t really work on,” he said.

For the rest of 2015 after the season opener, however, there would no more catches for Barnes.

A case perhaps can be made that getting redshirted would have been more worthwhile, as it turned out.

UL's Keenan Barnes goes up high to make a catch for a big gain in Saturday's loss at Tulane.

But Hudspeth said the move was made out of “necessity,” as depth was needed at receiver.

Barnes sees both sides of a coin — redshirt or play — that frequently is tough to call.

“You’ve got to take the pros and the cons with it,” Barnes said.

“Of course I would have liked to have made a bigger impact on the season, on my team. But just having that knowledge coming into this season and that wisdom — it’s a big factor, a big advantage.”

Heading into 2016, Barnes was among a cast of much-ballyhooed young receivers for the Cajuns.

But among the five who joined veterans Johnson, Al Riles, Gabe Fuselier and now-out-for-the-season Scott, only Barnes and slot receiver Gary Haynes had actual game experience last season.

Jackson, Ja’Marcus Bradley (now starting on the outside opposite of Barnes) and Michael Jacquet all were redshirted.

That gave Barnes, a former high school basketball standout who has a vertical jump of about 36 inches, something of a leg up.

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Bradley has one touchdown catch among his 11 grabs this season and Jacquet has a TD catch, too, leaving UL coach Mark Hudspeth to rave about all of the youngsters.

“Our wideouts are starting to look the part, all across the board,” he said.

Hudspeth, however, senses something just a tad different about Barnes.

“You could tell he’s out there with maybe more confidence than some of the other guys,” Hudspeth said.

Barnes feels it too.

“I knew coming into this season that I was gonna play a big role in the offense,” he said, “and I’m just protecting my role and doing what I can to be a dominant receiver.”

Protecting, indeed.

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Barnes had two catches, including one for a touchdown, in UL’s season-opening loss to Boise State.

He had a couple more catches in a win over McNeese State.

Two catches for 55 yards, including a 38-yard touchdown grab, followed in a win over South Alabama.

And Barnes made a career-high four receptions for 56 yards in UL’s 41-39 loss at Tulane, including a 10-yarder from Anthony Jennings for a touchdown in UL’s first possession in overtime.

Barnes acrobatically managed to put a foot in-bounds.

“What a phenomenal play,” Hudspeth said, “to go up over the guy in the back of the end zone and get his toe down.

“These young guys are growing by leaps and bounds each week.”

Asked if the catch at Tulane was his best ever, Barnes said “it’s up there.”

If not that, then what?

“I had a couple in high school that were kind of some crowd-hushers — some ‘Ahhhs,’” he said.

Like that one he seems to be remember coming again rival Northwest Rankin High in Mississippi.

“I caught one ball over, like, three people,” Barnes recalled. “It was real high, and the dude hit me out the air, but I stayed up, and it was crazy.”

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It was the sort of grab that makes a guy hope for another.

“When I’m under the lights, I feel like I just want to make plays,” Barnes said. “So, when I make them, it’s kind of like, ‘Oh, okay, now let’s make some more.’ ”

The NCAA FBS college bulbs, though, burn just a bit those brighter than those over any high school field.

Barnes, who has 133 yards on his 10 catches this season, readily acknowledges that.

They also burner brighter when you’re starting as opposed to playing as a reserve. Yet when his turn to start came, Barnes was eagerly ready.

“It wouldn’t say it was a huge leap,” he said, “because I’ve been preparing myself to take over.

“I came in from high school wanting to be the starter, so just getting that opportunity — I just feel like I could capitalize, and I was at home now.”

Three TD catches in four games?

Barnes figures why not more.

“It’s making me hungry,” he said of his early season success in 2016, “just knowing that I can do that and that I’m playing a big role in my offense.

“It just makes me want to have, in the near future, three touchdowns in a game. I feel like this is just the bottom of the barrel.”

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