Sept. 8, 2004
by Michael Bruscas
It takes a big man to admit a mistake.
At 6-foot-5 and 310 pounds, they don't come much bigger than senior offensive tackle Khalif Barnes. After anchoring the left side of the Huskies' line for the past three seasons, Barnes has learned that mistakes are just part of the game.
"I was one of those guys thinking I was perfect, and I could never screw up," Barnes says. "When I did, I was devastated. Being more mature now, if something like that happens, I let it go."
Barnes hasn't only learned to control his own emotions; he's learned how to read his opponent's as well.
"You can tell when a player's confident and when he's not," he says. "You can see in his eyes when he's scrambled or confused, and you can tell when someone's mentally strong. It has to do with how well they bounce back."
Bouncing back is something the Huskies will be looking to do in 2004, after the disappointment of last season's 6-6 record. Rather than downplay the significance of the 2003 season, Barnes prefers to embrace it, using it to fuel the Dawgs' desire to return to the top of the Pac-10.
"We had our trials and tribulations last year, but sometimes programs have to hit that level to bounce back," he says. "You have to take a season like that to appreciate what you have, learn not take anything for granted, and remember what it takes to get where you need to go."
Barnes is one of the few remaining Huskies who can speak from experience on what is needed to reach a Rose Bowl. Now a star at offensive tackle, Barnes spent the 2000 season as a redshirting freshman defensive end, working on the scout squad to challenge the offense that would ultimately defeat Purdue in the 2001 Rose Bowl.
"Winning the Rose Bowl was the best thing I've ever experienced in my life," he says. "We were a part of it in the sense that we practiced every day. Our scout team went hard to give our offense a good look. That team was just so close and so well-bonded on the field. That was great. That's why it's so important for me to get back to another one."
For Washington to smell the roses in 2004, a number of on-field questions must be addressed. The battle at starting quarterback has received the most attention, but the success of whichever player ends up behind center will depend largely on how the inexperienced offensive line holds up.
"Playing with Cody Pickett for three years, I got used to him -- knowing what his tendencies were, what he could endure, how his composure was," Barnes says. "For a new quarterback, it's different, because he's about to go into action on the field without coaches for the first time. They've been used to playing in practice under controlled situations, with a coach standing right behind them to stop the play anytime they want. You get to Saturday, and there's nobody out there but us. If something goes wrong, they have to take charge of it and they have to lead, so we're going to have to keep guys off of him and keep his mind as fresh as we can."
As a unit, Washington's offensive linemen have seen their share of game time, but for many, that action came on the other side of the ball. This year alone, Stanley Daniels, Tui Alailefaleula, and Graham Lasee all are hoping to make the transition from stopping opposing tailbacks to springing their own. Barnes knows how tough it can be to give up the glory for the guts, and hopes to help the newcomers make the same adjustment he made four years ago.
"My main thing coming into college was playing defensive end. When you sack the quarterback, it's a feeling that's just awesome. They made the switch and I thought it was the end of the world. I thought, `I'm not going to be able to make these plays anymore,'" he recalls.
"When it came down to it, though, I just wanted to be on the field," he continues. "So I used my experience as a defensive player to my advantage. I can put myself in their shoes and anticipate what they're trying to do. I know how they're trying to cut the corners to get to the ball, I know they're trying the rip, or club move, or swim. I've seen everything they can do, so I know how to counter it."
Barnes indeed has seen it all. Heading into this season, the senior has started every game of his collegiate career at left tackle, a string of 37 consecutive starts. He is by far Washington's most experienced lineman -- Tusi Sa'au and Clay Walker tie for second overall, with just six starts apiece. Barnes remembers what it was like to be in the young guys' shoes, trying to make an impression on the veterans, and hopes he can provide the same kind of leadership in 2004 that the team's seniors did for him in 2000.
" When I played with Kyle Benn and Elliot Silvers, I wanted to play to a level where I didn't disappoint them," he recalls. "By my sixth start, I started to gain more confidence and believe I could really play at this level. It's a comfort zone. I think our group this year feels the same way I did. They're working well; they're a good core group. They're guys I like to get along with and that makes chemistry better."
Should Barnes line up to start every game this season, he will enter a rare class of offensive linemen to start every game of their four-year career. Barnes has managed to remain remarkably unscathed the past three years, despite the ongoing battles in the trenches felling numerous linemen around him. Much credit goes to Barnes' conditioning and willingness to play through pain, but by his own admission, luck has also played a significant role.
"A lot of it is just luck, he says. "Every guy works hard to stay in top condition. You can roll your ankle on any play. But, week-in and week-out, you endure so much pain, it's unbelievable. We play in a lot of pain that people can't see. Hitting 300-pounders in the hole every play takes a toll on your body. When you hit that many guys with that much force, it creates stress in places you'd never imagine you'd get pain. But when you're playing, you love the game so much that those pains go away and you don't feel them until Sunday or Monday morning. I've played with sprained ankles, dislocated fingers -- but I've been lucky."
With that perspective, it's no surprise that simply racking up starts is not what concerns Barnes most.
"I'm one of those guys where I could have the greatest game in the world, but if we get beat, I feel like I really did nothing," he says. "The streak of starts and all that's great, but what it all boils down to is, `What would make me even happier?' Winning the Pac-10. So, hopefully I can be like the older guys were to me, and get everyone's confidence up, and let them know that we are contending every year for a Pac-10 title.
"They'd better be able to keep up, because this year, I'm going to be moving fast."