Redshirt freshman defensive end Deion Barnes didn't really know what to expect coming into the season as a backup in Larry Johnson's rotation. In the first three weeks, however, he's made the most of his opportunities and has been a nuisance to the quarterback in the last two weeks.
"I joke with my teammates all the time with my teammates about who is going to get the most sacks this year," said Barnes. "I definitely did think before the season that I would be able to have the most sacks on the team."
So far this season, Barnes is ahead in the informal competition. He leads the Nittany Lions with three sacks and has forced a team-high two fumbles. He's made his name as a pass rushing specialist with Pete Massaro out of the lineup.
"He's found his identity as a pass rusher," said defensive end Sean Stanley. "We're after the quarterback every time and it's a race. I guess, so far, he's winning."
Barnes was named the Big Ten co-Freshman of the Week for his five tackle, one sack performance on Saturday. He's turned heads all the way up to the top in the last few weeks.
"I just think Deion Barnes is a good player," said Penn State head coach Bill O'Brien. " I know Larry (Johnson) probably gets mad at me a lot because I talk about him so much, but he is a really good football player that has a huge future.
"If you've coached in the National Football League and you know what a good pass rusher looks like, like a Tamba Hali, like a DeMarcus Ware, I'm not saying he is there yet. But the way he gets off the football, he uses his hands, the way he gets off the edge, the way he understands where the quarterback sets up and the way he tries to strip the ball shows his potential. As a young player trying to do that, you know he has a bright future and I just think he is a great kid and I am happy for him."
"For a redshirt freshman, he's done some good things," added defensive coordinator Ted Roof. "I was really proud of him last week because he made a critical error early in the game, like every freshman, but he responded with a couple of huge plays for us. That's what you want to see out of those guys. A guy like Deion that has worked extremely hard and football is extremely important to him, he's a prideful kid and he's gotten better and needs to continue to get better."
Barnes' play off the edge has his confidence at an all-time high.
"I'm very confident right now. I'm not going to get it confused with cocky, but I'm very confident right now in my ability to be a big pass rusher," Barnes said following the game on Saturday. "I actually gained more confidence now after being able to stop the run."
Stopping the run has been Barnes' biggest test so far this year and his biggest hurdle in getting to be a well-rounded defensive end. Teams have tried to run right at him in the last two weeks.
"At 246 [pounds], people are going to come at me, but in the last few games against Virginia and Navy I was able to hold my ground and be able get tackles," he said. "I definitely think that I need to strengthen that, but I think I'm starting to get stronger at that."
Moving forward, Barnes believes he can be a big part of a defense that he says has just scratched the surface on its potential.
"The sky is the limit. With the players we have, it's ridiculous. Mauti, Gerald Hodges, and Carson back there with Jordan Hill, DaQuan and Stanley. I mean, the sky is the limit," he said. "With the front seven and safeties and cornerbacks playing the way they did today, the sky is the limit. I think we can be one of the best."