Junior wide receiver A.J. Barker was surrounded by reporters Tuesday afternoon in the team room at the Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex — a rather unfamiliar position for a walk-on who had just one reception in his first two seasons.
But Barker’s performance Thursday warranted the attention.
Barker caught three passes for a game-high 101 yards and helped spark Minnesota’s 30-27 victory over Nevada-Las Vegas last Thursday.
“I always hoped I’d be in this position,” Barker said. “Did I know it would happen? No. But that’s why you keep fighting.”
His performance at UNLV didn’t surprise offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover.
Limegrover credited Barker as a player that has “really come on this fall.”
“The kid makes plays,” he said. “He’s been a guy that’s kind of stayed under the radar and done his thing [in practice]. We have a lot of confidence in him.”
The 21-year-old has fought for playing time and battled hamstring injuries for most of his career. Now healthy, Barker has established himself as a viable playmaker for the Gophers’ offense.
In high school, Barker re-wrote the Minnesota state record books as a wide receiver for Saint Paul Academy and DeLaSalle High School, setting career records for receiving yards and receiving touchdowns.
But it wasn’t enough to garner a scholarship offer from the Gophers or any other Big Ten school.
Barker didn’t disclose the scholarship offers he had from some “smaller Division-I schools,” as they weren’t options he took seriously.
Minnesota and Wisconsin recruited Barker as a “preferred walk-on,” and those were the only opportunities he really considered before deciding to play for the Gophers.
“I knew pretty early on that I was either going to take a chance at Wisconsin and Minnesota,” he said. “I always felt I had a chance to compete at this level.”
He joined Minnesota in time for the 2009 season, which he sat out as a redshirt. The 6-foot-1 Barker weighed just 178 pounds at the time, and the coaching staff wanted him to get stronger before he saw game action.
And so he did.
During his redshirt season, Barker gained 10 pounds and spent time learning the nuances of the college game with hopes of playing in 2010. He worked his way up the depth chart, saw action in four games and snagged one pass in the team’s season finale against Iowa.
More importantly, he appeared to put himself in a prime position to earn even more playing time in 2011.
That was short-lived. Barker’s hamstring troubles resurfaced, and he tumbled down the depth chart.
“He’s [played well] a lot of times in practice last year and the year before, but it’s just always been injuries that happen to pop up,” wide receiver Brandon Green said. “He got going this camp, didn’t get hurt in the game, got the opportunity, and he seized the moment.”
Barker said the succession of injuries was an inner struggle, as he never knew whether he would return to full form.
“Any time you lose that explosiveness, it’s hard on any athlete,” he said. “You wonder, ‘Am I ever going to get this back?’”
After appearing in four games in 2010, Barker played in just two games as a sophomore in 2011. Whatever promise he had shown was compromised by his health.
“It was definitely a struggle at times,” he said, “being at the bottom of the depth chart, having to come out, lift, work out every day. You play a physical game in football. Nothing is guaranteed.”
“And when you’re at the bottom and people are targeting you, you’ve got to be mentally tough. You’ve got to keep fighting back. And you’ve really got to keep believing in yourself.”
So Barker spent hours, days, weeks with the training staff and strength and conditioning coaches.
By the time fall camp rolled around, he was healthy and ready to go. Head coach Jerry Kill took notice and touted him throughout fall camp.
“I’m very pleased with A.J. It’s the first time he’s been healthy since I’ve been here,” Kill said Tuesday.
“He can run. He’s got good speed, good hands. It was encouraging to see him play on game day like he did,” Kill said.
Barker has earned the praise of his quarterback, too. Senior MarQueis Gray said he’s happy with Barker’s progress and expects him to play well this week.
Barker is still a walk-on, and when asked, he downplayed the possibility of earning a scholarship.
“[Kill] showed me early on that he had faith in me as a player, and the bottom line is I need to be healthy. I understand how some things work. I’m not out there asking for a [scholarship],” he said.
“I’m worried about going out and playing football.”
He’ll have that chance again Saturday in the team’s home opener against New Hampshire.
“That’s why I stayed here,” he said. “I can’t wait to do it for my home state.”
—Dane Mizutani contributed to this report