As good as he's been this year, El Camino College quarterback Ron Barber may have done the most for his game by sitting one out two weeks ago.
It wasn't by choice--Barber missed the game against Bakersfield College after having arthroscopic surgery for torn knee ligaments. So he stayed on the sidelines and charted the plays.
The next week, wearing a special knee brace and hobbling noticeably at times, Barber broke the El Camino single game record for passing yardage with 467 yards in a wild 45-35 loss to powerful Taft. Barber was nearly perfect, completing his first nine passes, 31 of 44 in the game, throwing three touchdowns and no interceptions.
"Sitting out that game really helped him," El Camino Coach John Featherstone said. "It gave him a chance to see the field from a different perspective."
Barber said standing on the sidelines was "a bad experience and a good experience. It helped. It was bad because I was just watching them play. It was good because I saw openings I never saw dropping back. Being able to analyze it was definitely a plus."
Featherstone said, "One of his greatest improvements has been his ability to read the blitz and go to the 'hot' back (the open receiver in the play). That takes a while--it's not something you pick up right away. The last three, four weeks he's really clicked in."
Like most of his predecessors at El Camino, Barber leads the Pac-9 Conference in most passing statistics and is among national junior college leaders aerially, throwing for nearly 2,000 yards through seven games and averaging 274 yards per game on nearly 60% accuracy.
Unlike most of his predecessors, Barber came from an option background at Banning High and sat out the last two seasons in search of the right situation.
After leaving Banning, where he started on a City champion team his junior year and the City runner-up as a senior--he also hit the game-winning shot as Banning won the City basketball title--Barber enrolled at UCLA, which didn't offer him a scholarship but had worked out plans for him to join the team as a walk-on.
The problem was Barber got caught up in the social aspects of college life and forgot the academic side. "I didn't get my grades. I flunked out, it's simple as that," Barber said. "It never worked out. I had a real lack of discipline that year."
Barber transferred to El Camino to work on his grades. "I wanted to prove to myself I could do it," he said. Then he headed to Cerritos College, but left when he found the quarterback position was already set. For a while Barber disappeared so completely that not even his high school coach, Chris Ferragamo, knew where to contact him.
Sitting out two years was trying for Barber, a competitive athlete and the son of a former L.A. City player of the year (Ron Sr.). He has returned a more serious and thoughtful athlete.
"I didn't know if I wanted to stay in school," he said. "I didn't really want to sit out. I had a little talk with the family. They said I should stay in school. That was the best thing--the one time I had to turn to them, they were there."
Featherstone was hired at El Camino last spring and didn't know many of the players, so Barber started with a clean slate. Featherstone immediately liked what he saw athletically and had a heart-to-heart talk with Barber about the commitment he expected.
"He's shooting for something now," Featherstone said. "He wasn't prepared for that situation at UCLA. He realized that this is his last chance. I told him, 'We're in this together. If you work your fanny off you've got a chance to be a great quarterback.'
"I liked how he always paid attention. He looks you in the eye and you feel like what you're saying is really sinking in. He carries himself very well. There's kind of an aura about him. He's a team player. He grasped the leadership role. He practices well. He can't wait to get out there and throw."
Where Barber was once a question mark--there weren't a lot of schools recruiting 5-10 option quarterbacks--he now is being recruited by a variety of schools and says he'll take his time, and a few trips, before making a choice.
"Several schools are recruiting him as a quarterback. A lot of schools are recruiting him as an athlete," Featherstone said. "He's one of the finest athletes I've ever seen. The first time I saw him throwing I said, 'Who's that guy?' The first thing I noticed were his quick feet (and) real quick release. He's got an exceptional feel for the game, good field vision. He's one of those gifted guys who comes along . . . one of those guys who's going to make something happen, whether it's good or bad. Mostly it's been good."
Barber says he won't worry about the future until after the last two games. The Warriors play their last home game Saturday against Golden West, then finish at Mt. San Antonio. He says he would like to go to a college that throws the ball now that he has successfully converted from an option quarterback to a drop-back passer. But he hints that UCLA may still hold sway.
"If I had a chance to go back I probably would," he said, "But I want to take some (recruiting) trips and be smart this time. I learned a lesson from UCLA. It kind of hurts but I guess you live and learn. . . . I'm definitely more disciplined."
Philosophically, he added, "I guess I had to wait my turn."
Despite El Camino's 3-5 record--the team has given up 94 points in losing two straight despite scoring 56--the teaming of Barber and Featherstone was probably a fortuitous one. "Our offense allows him to do what he does best, the triple threat," Featherstone said.
Featherstone's offense, learned from innovators like Don Coryell, gave Barber a chance to prove he produce as a drop-back and rollout quarterback--something he says he could always do.
"Going into Banning I was a passer," Barber insisted. "Ferragamo decided to stay with the option, which was his bread and butter, so I didn't really get a chance to do a lot of passing. But I accomplished a lot there throwing. I was up around 1,300 yards each year. But it was never throwing 40 times a game.
"A team definitely needs to be 50-50, but every time I go back to pass I'm happy. It's never, 'Oh no, I have to throw again.' I like to throw the ball. The world is passing. Playing at El Camino has been a fun experience."
Barber almost glosses over the record he set because it came in a loss. He is quick to credit his line, backs and receivers. "I didn't feel any more confident or hotter than usual," he said. "Coach Featherstone's scheme was perfect. I just did my part."
If you push him he'll admit, "I realize what I've done. I just don't want to take all the credit. I wish we'd have won it."
Then he adds, "Against Fullerton I threw four interceptions. I threw an interception in the end zone when we might have won the game. I didn't take the blame for the loss.
"But I'll tell you what--that won't happen again. I felt those interceptions more than this record."