NORMAN — It’s difficult to see exactly what happened to Robert Barnes on the night of Dec. 29, 2018, when Oklahoma was playing Alabama in the Orange Bowl. But in the aftermath, he couldn’t practice football at full strength for nearly eight months.
The OU safety tried positioning himself to stop Alabama running back Josh Jacobs, who caught a pass in the flat and had 22 yards to reach full speed. By the time he reached a flatfooted Barnes at the 5-yard line, it was a severe mismatch.
Barnes is good-sized — 6 feet, 2 inches tall and 207 pounds — but Jacobs reduced that frame to a heap, sending Barnes’ helmet to the turf and one of his legs into an awkward position.
He left the game in a daze.
“It was poor fundamentals on the tackle. I should’ve just shot it, [but] I didn’t,” Barnes said Monday. “It’s football. Things like that happen. I definitely have been playing it over and learning from it and I’m ready to attack this season.”
The violent collision was why Barnes missed all of OU’s spring practices, which were more critical than usual as new defensive coordinator Alex Grinch installed a “Speed D” scheme and began evaluating the position he coaches — safeties.
Barnes wouldn’t disclose his injury but said it was in his lower body and that he was not concussed on the play. Now, he’s thankful to be sprinting and cutting like normal at 100 percent.
Barnes’ chance to shine in the new system could have potentially taken a hit. OU’s safety battle has been one of the more hotly contested positions since the spring.
That figures to continue in preseason camp with redshirt junior Chanse Sylvie healthy again, joining the mix with frontrunners Patrick Fields and Delarrin Turner-Yell. Jeremiah Criddell and Jamal Morris, two highly touted newcomers, could also assert themselves.
A number of Sooner defensive backs who can shift between safety, nickel and cornerback could make the competition even more fluid. But Barnes feels confident he can retain his old spot, even though a number of roles on Grinch’s defense appear ripe for the taking.
“The more bodies that you have, not just competing for starting spots but competing for roles, certainly is an important element of things. We didn't take a lot of stock in what has taken place in the past,” Grinch said. “That's the responsible thing to do. We're open-minded for those guys, fresh start just like we expected them to have an open mind with our coaching staff.”
Barnes didn’t need another physical setback. A broken leg in high school lingered into his 2017 freshman season, and a doctor discovered it had created an imbalance in his leg, which led to recurring hamstring problems.
He got healthy enough to make eight consecutive starts to end last season. In one of those games, a comeback win at Texas Tech, he accomplished what Grinch is preaching to the Sooners about his turnover-based scheme.
Barnes picked off a two-point conversion reverse-pass and returned it 100 yards for a score the other way. Instead of facing a tie game with under 7 minutes left, the Sooners secured a four-point lead.
The former defensive back and receiver at Southlake Carroll (Texas) has ball skills Grinch might be looking for in a safety. Interceptions on two-point conversions are not counted in official statistic logs, but if they were, Barnes would have been one of just two OU players with multiple picks a year ago.
As for the spring he missed in Norman, he feels like he still learned something.
“I wouldn’t say I fell behind at all,” Barnes said. “It does help getting those physical reps, being in there. But being out allowed me to learn the new defense from a coaching standpoint and it made it that much easier coming back to fall camp and executing everything he’s asking.”