Editor’s note: Every day, from now until Penn State football’s Class of 2017 reports to campus June 24, we’ll highlight a different one of the Nittany Lions’ 17 incoming signees. Today is Day 4 of the 17-day series.
Damion Barber, a 6-foot-3, 265-pound future Nittany Lion, terrorized his Mid Penn and non-conference opponents alike — and they remember.
A standout defensive end at Harrisburg, Barber led the Mid Penn with 27 tackles for loss and was second in sacks with 13 his senior season. He racked up 38 career sacks, hitting double-digits each of his last three years with the Cougars.
Coaches tried everything to stop the four-star prospect. Extra blockers, deception, anything to try and slow him down.
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But nothing worked.
In 2016, coaches from four schools in particular all walked away from losses to Barber and the Cougars frustrated — and yet, undoubtedly impressed.
Here’s a look at some of Barber’s key performances that season and what opposing coaches remember about the terror on defense:
Sept. 17: Harrisburg 32, Pottsville 7
Sack count: 2
Pottsville head coach Tom McGeoy didn’t know how much Barber would see the field after missing the game before against Reading.
Barber ended up only playing 50 to 60 percent of the snaps against the Crimson Tide, but each rep made a difference.
“The thing we remember the most: When he wasn’t in the game, we moved the ball a little bit,” McGeoy said. “And when he came back in, he was a game-changer. He changed the whole complexion of their defense.”
In limited reps, Barber tallied two sacks and two tackles for loss.
“He was just an animal,” McGeoy said. “My guys still talk about him. His size, speed, the way he plays the game. He was the best defender we played all year.”
The Crimson Tide actually felt somewhat confident heading into halftime. Pottsville quarterback Erik Wapinsky escaped Barber to throw a second-quarter touchdown pass, and the Crimson Tide were down only 9-7 heading into the locker room.
But Pottsville was met with an unwelcomed surprise in the second half — Barber, whose reps were greatly restricted in the first half, played more in the third and fourth quarters.
His impact was felt, too.
“We couldn’t block him,” McGeoy said. “We couldn’t sustain drives, and everything started to snowball.
“He was a man, and he caused us problems.”
Oct. 29: Harrisburg 45, Carlisle 7
Sack count: 1.5
Former Carlisle head coach Patrick Conrad and his Thundering Herd got the short end of the stick — they had to go up against five-star, 2018 defensive end Micah Parsons twice in one season.
Parsons, who transferred from Central Dauphin to Harrisburg, faced Carlisle in Week 4 with the Rams and then in Week 9 as a member of the Cougars. It was Parsons’ first game with Harrisburg, and Conrad wasn’t certain where he’d play on the field for the Cougars.
But the Carlisle coach knew where Barber would be and tried to gameplan his run-pass-option offense around the senior, reading him throughout the contest.
It was a bold strategy that didn’t pay off.
“His ability,” Conrad said before pausing briefly, “it was at a much higher level than what I expected.”
Barber had a solo sack in the first half and later combined for another with Parsons.
But it wasn’t the sacks that impressed Conrad — it was Barber’s execution in disrupting Carlisle’s mesh point.
“The thing that really surprised me was the way he played with leverage,” Conrad said. “He’s got such a strong bend and plays on an angle. That made it difficult for us just to read him. He played both the running back and the quarterback.”
Conrad said the Thundering Herd faced some tough defensive linemen last season – but no one obstructed the mesh point quite like Barber.
“Not on a relentless, consistent basis the way he did,” the coach said. “It was every single play.”
Nov. 4: Harrisburg 35, Cumberland Valley 14
Sack count: 2
Cumberland Valley running back Jake Palmer took an inside trap handoff at his own 25-yard line and burst through the middle of Harrisburg’s defensive front.
Barber and his fellow defensive linemen were caught upfield, expecting an outside run. As Palmer raced from the Cumberland Valley 30 to the 35 and to the 40, it was up to the Harrisburg secondary to bring him down.
At least that’s what convention football knowledge would dictate.
Instead, Barber chased Palmer down from behind, diving and dragging him to the grass at the Cumberland Valley 45-yard line.
Sure, it was a 20-yard gain. But it could’ve been a lot worse.
“He wouldn’t take plays off,” Cumberland Valley coach Michael Whitehead said. “If he made a mistake, he’d get back into the play, hustle his guy down and make the tackle.”
And Barber made plenty of tackles against the Eagles.
In a Week 10 matchup between two of central Pennsylvania’s finest — Harrisburg and Cumberland Valley combined for 20 wins in 2016 — Barber put on a show. The rangy lineman tallied six tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble recovered by the Cougars.
Prior to that critical Mid Penn matchup, the Cougars had never beaten Cumberland Valley in Barber’s time there.
But in his final shot to bring down the Eagles, the senior had a signature performance.
“And I think his best football is ahead of him,” Whitehead said. “His game is more suited to the college game. His athleticism will be a big hit up at Penn State.”
Nov. 25: Harrisburg 48, Manheim Central 20
TFL count: 2
The story of the District 3 Class 5A championship was Harrisburg’s offense. Cougars quarterback Yahmir Wilkerson threw for a district-playoff record six touchdowns, torching the Barons in a rout.
But Manheim Central coach Dave Hahn’s offense scored less than half of what it was accustomed to. It averaged 49.5 points per game entering the title game. The Barons eclipsed 55 points five times throughout the season and even hung 78 on one team.
What went wrong in Manheim Central’s lowest-scoring game (20) of the season?
“What they did upfront impeded us from getting started,” Hahn said of Harrisburg’s defensive line. “If we had a second longer on some plays, we may have done OK. But when they’re collapsing the pocket, putting the pressure on, and the quarterback has to run, things break down. That happened on a consistent basis, and that’s hard to overcome.”
A major part of that effort was Barber, who had four tackles — two for a loss — and a hit that sent Barons quarterback Kody Kegarise flying five yards.
Barber devastated the Manheim Central offensive line with his versatility. On the quarterback hurry, he was lined up at defensive tackle and swim-moved a guard with relative ease. Meanwhile, Barber was as an edge rusher for his two tackles for loss.
“He’s a kid that can play anywhere on the line,” Hahn said. “He’s so big and physically imposing, you had to account for him. You had to know where he was.”
And more often than not, the Barons couldn’t keep Barber in front of them.
The Harrisburg defensive end showcased his speed, power, leverage — every reason why James Franklin and the Nittany Lion coaching staff recruited him hard early in his process.
Barber has the potential to break out in Happy Valley and give offensive linemen fits — just like he did in high school.
“He passes the eyeball test,” Hahn said. “He can be a big-time player at Penn State.”
Overview of Damion Barber
Hometown/high school: Harrisburg, Pa./Harrisburg
Height/weight: 6-foot-3/245 pounds
Position: Defensive lineman
Recruit rankings: 4 stars (247); 3 stars (ESPN, Rivals, Scout)
Other scholarship offers: Iowa State, Pitt, Purdue, Rutgers, Syracuse, Temple, Virginia Tech