Kenjon Barner is perfect complement to Oregon’s attack
LaMichael James, the nation’s leading rusher, already has run his way into Oregon’s record book.
Star freshman De’Anthony Thomas appears well on his way to doing the same.
Then there’s Kenjon Barner, Oregon’s selfless multiple-purpose man in the middle.
The junior running back from Riverside has combined with his more heralded teammates to give the No. 8 Ducks one of college football’s fastest and most dynamic offensive trios.
“He’s every bit as explosive,” UCLA Coach Rick Neuheisel said. “There’s no drop-off when he’s in the game.”
The 5-foot-11, 195-pound Barner has scored 13 touchdowns for the Ducks, who hope to advance to a Bowl Championship Series bowl for the third year in a row.
If Oregon defeats UCLA on Friday in the inaugural Pac-12 Conference title game, Barner and his teammates will return to the Rose Bowl for a Jan. 2 matchup against the Big Ten Conference champion.
Barner has already played in the stadium twice.
In 2009, he returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown, sparking a rally that led to a victory over the Bruins.
Later that season, the Ducks lost to Ohio State in the Rose Bowl game.
Barner hopes to have another opportunity to play in Pasadena next month. First, he must help the Ducks stay on point against a UCLA team that comes to Autzen Stadium as a 32-point underdog and with a coach who has been fired.
Motivation will not be a problem for Barner.
“Whenever we play any team from California, I get a little bit more excited,” he said during a telephone interview.
Barner rotates in at running back, and lines up wide and in the slot as a running or pass-catching threat. He has also returned kicks and covered punts as a gunner.
“He’s been an unbelievable asset for us,” Coach Chip Kelly said.
After playing eight-man football for Moreno Valley Calvary Chapel for two seasons and then finishing his high school career at Riverside Notre Dame, Barner was recruited by Oregon as a defensive back.
He spent the 2008 season as a redshirt on defense and appeared on his way to playing time after intercepting a pass and returning it for a touchdown during a spring workout in 2009. The next day, he was summoned to Kelly’s office.
“It felt like I was going to the principal’s office,” Barner said, laughing. “My heart was beating fast and I was trying to think, ‘What did I do?’ ”
Kelly told Barner there was a depth issue on offense. The coach wanted to take a look at Barner on that side of the ball. Initially, Barner was disappointed.
“But then I called my dad,” he said, “and he reminded me that this is what I had always wanted to do.”
Barner grew up a USC fan, watching Reggie Bush in the BCS title game against Texas and imitating many of his moves in the frontyard with friends.
He showed some of his own as a redshirt freshman. Barner set a school record with 1,020 yards in kickoff returns, then capped the 2009 season by rushing for a season-best 64 yards in the Rose Bowl.
With James suspended for the 2010 season opener against New Mexico, Barner ran for 147 yards and accounted for five touchdowns.
His sophomore season almost ended when he absorbed a violent hit during a midseason game against Washington State. He was sidelined for two games, missing UCLA, but returned to help the Ducks finish an unbeaten regular season, rushing for 133 yards and scoring twice against Oregon State. He touched the ball 17 times and had 75 all-purpose yards in Oregon’s BCS title-game loss to Auburn.
This season, Barner got a chance to carry the load when James suffered an elbow injury after three consecutive 200-yard performances.
“I remember LaMichael’s exact words,” Barner recalled. “He said, ‘I’m excited to see you play a lot so you can finally feel what 30 carries feel like.’ ”
Barner rushed for 171 yards and a touchdown in 31 carries against Arizona State, relishing the workload.
Barner, though, is happy to be back in a rotation that allows Oregon to use all of its weapons. He has run for more than 100 yards three more times, including a 123-yard, two-touchdown effort in a 38-35 loss to USC last month.
“This is a team game and my No. 1 priority is helping us win,” he said. “I’m extremely lucky and blessed to be in the position I’ve been in.”
Times staff writer Chris Foster contributed to this report.
Get our high school sports newsletter
Prep Rally is devoted to the SoCal high school sports experience, bringing you scores, stories and a behind-the-scenes look at what makes prep sports so popular.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.