UNIVERSITY PARK — With one charge of his electric scooter, Brad Bars would take a seat and ride from Atherton Street to the Lasch Football building in just a handful of minutes.
It’s taken him much longer to actually return to the fields behind Penn State’s practice facility.
A ruptured Achilles tendon forced him to take these rides — often with his crutches in tow — last summer and into the fall. Now Bars, who plans to petition the NCAA for a sixth year of eligibility following this season, is ready to play for the first time since the 2012 finale against Wisconsin.
Penn State coaches are holding Bars out of contact drills this spring but the fifth-year senior from Nashville, Tenn. is itching to get back to hitting especially considering he’s played in just 19 of Penn State’s 50 games since he’s been on campus.
“Last year was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever been through,” Bars said.
Just a few days before Penn State’s training camp opened, Bars was conditioning with a few of his teammates when he felt a sharp pain above his heel. He thought someone had kicked him.
It was worse.
“I got the news right away and went into surgery,” Bars said. “I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to come back for the season.”
Bars’ rehab was delayed in order for the incision to heal. His motorized scooter came in handy for trips across campus. His teammates would push him around in a specialized cart during trips to the grocery store. He spent the rest of the season on the sideline slowly graduating from riding his scooter to plodding about on crutches.
After about a month, Bars was able to put weight on his injured leg. He began jogging in late November. When winter workouts began in January, Bars was able to do explosive exercises along with his teammates like squats and dead lifts without any setbacks.
But while Bars’ season ended before it really began, he was able to contribute in other ways.
He made use of his time from the sidelines after former coach Bill O’Brien recommended he help out coaching the squad’s special teams.
“I knew that if I stayed in it and stayed involved that there wouldn’t be a transition coming back because I cared that much about my teammates and cared about their success so much that I just wanted to do it for them,” Bars said. “That was a no-brainer for me.”
So instead of focusing on game tape of the offensive tackles he would’ve been tasked with beating, he worked with team video coordinator Jevin Stone to compile hours of footage of opposing kickoff, punt, field goal and return units.
Ironically, Bars introduced himself to Penn State fans with a critical play during his redshirt freshman season in 2011. In Week 9 clash will Illinois, the Illini were forced to punt from their own 37-yard line when Bars flew around blockers to smother the punt behind the line of scrimmage. Bars recovered the ball and the turnover led to a Penn State field goal that sparked a 10-7 win at Beaver Stadium.
While coming up with special teams scouting reports was his primary responsibility, Bars didn’t limit himself to observing specialists. He also watched opposing offenses and monitored foes from the sideline in order to provide feedback to his teammates along the defensive line.
In the process, Bars’ new perspective on the game helped him understand tendencies and capabilities of certain players and teams more than he did in the past.
“The game slowed down so much and you realize this guy is good good, this guy’s really not good at all, you can beat him with X, Y, and Z moves,” Bars said. “I think that watching that film really exposed a lot of the game that you sometimes didn’t see. You see lineman tendencies. You saw little tips whether they’re head movements, their feet placements, things like that that you can cue (on) to do even better in your game when you’re out there.”
Now, after a 16-month absence, Bars is ready to get back out there. He’ll have to wait six more months, however. Penn State begins its season in Ireland against Central Florida on Aug. 30.
Bars can’t wait, his teammates are eager to get him back, too.
“He has a very high and fast motor,” cornerback Jordan Lucas said. “He just goes 110 percent every time he’s out there on the field. He comes up and tells me every day, ‘I’m going to help you get those interceptions.’ I’m like, ‘Cool man, I can’t do it without you.’ He’s going to put the pressure on the quarterback.”
And although Penn State has a new coaching staff and Sean Spencer replaced longtime defensive line coach Larry Johnson, Bars’ has continued to be an asset with his knowledge of defensive schemes.
Penn State returns Deion Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan, two players who combined to start 10 and 12 games at defensive end, respectively. But behind them, experience is thin. The Nittany Lions will likely rely on a handful of redshirt freshman — Garrett Sickels and Curtis Cothran — to augment the perimeter along with Bars and junior Carl Nassib.
Senior linebacker Mike Hull believes Bars is up to the task, not only to earn a good amount of snaps, but also to continue to help the younger players along.
“It’s great to have him back out there. He’s really an intense guy,” Hull said. “Always goes 100 miles an hour. He’s really smart and he helps a lot of the younger guys and even the older guys. He does a really good job of on-field coaching and telling guys what they need to work on. It’s definitely an asset to have him back out there.”
Follow Travis Johnson on Twitter @bytravisjohnson.