With lofty goals, UL receiver Barnes works to cash in

Tim Buckley
The Daily Advertiser

When asked about his goals before UL’s 2017 season began, Keenan Barnes did not equivocate.

UL's Keenan Barnes pulls in a pass against Southeastern Louisiana earlier this season.

“At least 1,000 (receiving yards),” the junior wideout said, “and a bowl ring.

“This year,” Barnes added then, “is the money year, I like to say.”

Four games in, UL’s hopes for a sixth bowl appearance in seven seasons are an uphill proposition. The Ragin’ Cajuns have opened 1-3, and heading into Saturday’s visit to Idaho their focus is on snapping on a three-game losing streak.

But Barnes, without a doubt, has been doing his part to help the Cajuns realize those postseason aspirations.

The product of Madison Central High in Madison, Mississippi, has a team-high 25 catches for 329 yards and one touchdown, putting him well on pace for that 1,000-yard receiving season on which he set his sights.

He’s averaging 13.2 yards per catch, and has three catches this season that have gone for 35-plus yards — a 37-yarder at Texas A&M, a 38-yarder against Southeastern Louisiana and a 50-yarder at Tulsa.

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It doesn’t surprise UL coach Mark Hudspeth that Barnes is getting it done, or that he isn’t afraid to tell the truth when asked what he wants.

“Keenan, he’s a very determined guy,” Hudspeth said. “He’s a hard worker. He’s tough.

“He’s got a little mean streak to him. He’s what I would call ‘a very good competitor.’ He loves to compete. So if you tell him he can’t do something, then it’s on.”

The match between the Cajuns and Barnes, however, was on only after UL had to do some competing of its own.

His first early offers came from Ole Miss and Mississippi State. Indiana was in the mix. But it was Louisville that made the hardest push to sign Barnes late.

In fact, Barnes and his best friend, Trey Smith, both visited with the Cardinals, and Smith, now a Louisville running back, signed with them.

The two coincidentally played together at Madison Central for coach Bobby Hall, father of — cue the “It’s a Small World" music — first-year UL offensive coordinator Will Hall.

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Barnes said he still had an offer on the table from Louisville when he decided to commit to the Cajuns, a pledge he ultimately honored.

At one point, though, he thought he was going to commit to Louisville instead.

“But I held off and then I just ended up committing here,” he said.

“It was kind of one of those things where proximity to home was a key factor, and I (felt) like I jelled well with the coaches. I feel like I made the right choice.”

Ditto for UL.

Barnes suited up for the Cajuns as a true freshman in 2015.

He played mostly on special teams, and had only one catch — against Northwestern State, in UL’s season-opener — all year long.

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That experience then, though, may be paying dividends now. 

“I think that helped him a lot, being on the field,” Hudspeth said. “He played a little bit sparingly … but he got his feet wet.”

Now they’re soaked.

Barnes had 31 catches for 418 yards last year, when he also had six touchdown receptions to tie for the Sun Belt Conference lead.

With this season only one-third done, he’s almost surpassed his yardage total already.

Slowed by a knee injury sustained during a Sept. 16 loss at Texas A&M, he had only four catches for 39 yards in UL’s most-recent outing, a 56-50 double-overtime loss to UL Monroe on Sept. 30.

But Barnes started the season with three catches for a team-high 70 yards in a season-opening win over Southeastern Louisiana.

He followed that up with six catches for 102 yards and the one TD in a 66-42 loss at Tulsa.

And he practically took the game over offensively at Texas A&M, finishing — despite hobbling with his knee injury the second half — with a career-high 12 grabs for a career-high 118 yards.

That's eight more catches than he had in any single game last season, testament to Barnes, a Hall-designed offense that gives playmakers like Barnes chances to make plays and a quarterback, Jordan Davis, who has found his top target with frequency without a system designed to take advantage mismatches.

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At least one future opposing coach has taken notice.

“He’s a playmaker,” Idaho’s Paul Petrino said.

“We’ve got to make sure we do a really good job of containing him, and making sure we know where he’s at at all times.”

That’s precisely the rep Barnes wants.

Early in his career, Barnes played behind — and looked up to — then-Cajuns standout receiver Jamal Robinson.

Robinson, who had two 800-plus-yard seasons at UL, briefly spent time on the Jacksonville Jaguars’ practice squad last season.

He’s been in their last two preseason camps.

And from time to time he still texts Barnes, who said he was “kind of pegged … to be the next Jamal Robinson.”

With that in mind, Barnes, who obviously has pro aspirations of his own, is trying to utilize lessons learned from Robinson — “how to be physical receiver, and just dominant … going out there and finding the ball … (how to) separate yourself” — to realize those goals he’s not at all shy about sharing.

“I know I’ve got to be a key factor — and, like I said before the season,” he said, “(I’m) just trying to show my dominance every play.”

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