UNIVERSITY PARK — The number 18 jersey belonged to Deion Barnes, but the player wearing it was oddly unfamiliar to Barnes’ father as he watched Penn State’s season opener unfold two weeks ago.
“My dad called me up and was like, ‘You’re not playing. I don’t know who’s playing out there right now, but that’s not Deion,’” Barnes said after Penn State’s 34-7 win over Navy on Saturday.
While Barnes was an afterthought against Ohio, he’s been at the forefront of most of Penn State’s defensive success in the past two games.
After racking up two sacks and a forced fumble against the Virginia Cavaliers last week, Barnes had his way with Navy offensive tackles on Saturday.
The redshirt sophomore was in on five tackles and forced a fumble when he drilled Navy quarterback Trey Miller on fourth-and-11 in the third quarter.
“I think he just keeps building on what he did the previous week,” senior defensive end Sean Stanley said. “This week he came out and got another strip-sack. I’m very happy for him. It seems like he’s getting an identity very well for himself.”
Barnes was a terror for Navy offensive tackles Ryan Paulson and Bradyn Heap for much of the afternoon. Although such efforts didn’t register in the game’s final statistics, Barnes continually ran both players back off the line of scrimmage.
Penn State coach Bill O’Brien said Barnes has shown flashes of pass-rushing qualities that make some of the National Football League’s premier defensive ends such vaunted talents. O’Brien brought up former Penn State All- American Tamba Hali and Dallas Cowboys linebacker DeMarcus Ware.
“I’m not saying he’s there yet,” O’Brien said. “But he does things, the way he gets off on the football, the way he uses his hands, the way he can get on an edge, the way he understands where the quarterback sets up, the way he strips the ball from the quarterback or he tries to when he sacks the quarterback.
“As a young player, to be able to do that, that just means to me that he has a really big future.”
While Barnes alone tomahawked the ball from Miller’s grasp in the third quarter, the 6-foot-4, 246-pound defensive end had a big hand in forcing one of the Nittany Lions’ three other turnovers.
On second-and-10 from midfield in the second quarter, Miller opted to keep the ball and pivoted left as Navy’s pesky triple-option developed. Heap put a steady block on Barnes initially, but the athletic Penn State end was able to sidestep down the line of scrimmage and pushed Heap backward. Both players fell with Barnes landing on top. Barnes, with a long reach, then had enough leverage to grab Miller’s hips before the Navy quarterback could turn up field.
In a split-second, as Miller tried to run out of Barnes’ grasp, Penn State safety Stephen Obeng- Agyapong flew up the field in support and put the crown of his helmet into Miller’s exposed body.
The Midshipmen quarterback lost the football and Penn State tackle Jordan Hill recovered the fumble.
“I basically had to stop thinking so much,” Barnes said of his struggles against Ohio. “I was coming off the ball thinking, ‘This is going to be run. This is going to be pass. This is going to be a screen.’ I just had to react.
“Whatever I see, I’ve got to react to it. So that’s what I was basically more focused on.”
That focus was evident to Penn State defensive coordinator Ted Roof, who said he saw Barnes make adjustments after struggling early against Virginia.
“He went inside and lost contain on the quarterback and then he responded with a couple of big sacks,” Roof said. “And I told him I was really proud of the way that he responded to that as a young player who doesn’t have a lot of experience.”
Barnes will likely get more experience in the coming weeks, as fifth-year senior end Pete Massaro continues to struggle with injuries. Massaro, who has been dealing with lingering symptoms following ACL surgery, suffered a shoulder injury against Virginia and did not suit up for the game against the Midshipmen.
Now, opposing offenses might have to focus more on the youngster from Philadelphia, who has suddenly established himself as a viable pass-rushing option opposite veteran end Stanley.
“Last week was definitely his coming-out party,” Hill said of Barnes. “That’s all he needed. He’s a very good player. He has a lot of potential and the sky’s the limit for him.
“I can’t wait to see him through his whole career.”
Travis Johnson can be reached at 231-4629. Follow him on Twitter @traviswjohnson_