PHILADELPHIA — That Densel Barnes is held in such high regard by his Indian River teammates and coaches is a foregone conclusion.
As the on- and off-field leader of the Warriors, the senior quarterback demands respect as he goes about his job of leading Indian River to a potential Section 3 Class A championship that just eluded them a year ago.
But when an opposing coach speaks almost reverently about such a player, you know there’s even more to a kid like Barnes.
“Athletically, he’s as good as we’ve ever faced,” said Carthage coach Sam Millich, who saw Barnes run for 138 yards and five touchdowns in Indian River’s 48-12 thrashing of the Comets during the regular season last year. “He’s scary because he can break off a long run on almost any play. And he’s so football smart. Perfect to run their offense.”
Millich and the Comets will have at least one more chance and maybe more to try to stop Barnes and his Indian River offense when they meet Sept. 19. Carthage did a much better job defending Barnes during that classic 21-20 Class A title game win in the Carrier Dome, holding Barnes to just five yards rushing and no scores.
But Millich knows that might have been an aberration. “When the ball’s in his hands, great things happen,” he said. “He seems like a great kid and we have the utmost respect for him.”
The coach who knows him the best, Indian River’s Cory Marsell, agrees 100 percent.
“Densel is such a hard worker and demands a lot of himself,” Marsell said. “He comes from a great family with great values and that shows every day in practice. When he’s on the field, he’s become a real leader just the way he plays. The other kids follow what he’s doing and know that will lead to success.”
After playing mainly running back as a sophomore, Barnes stepped into the quarterback position last year as the ring leader of Marsell’s vaunted Wing-T offense. And the Warriors didn’t hesitate.
Barnes finished with 726 rushing yards on 128 carries and scored 14 touchdowns. His passing progressed through the season, finishing with 628 yards through the air by completing 30 of 75 throws for five more scores. He threw only four interceptions.
Marsell believes that was just the beginning as far as Barnes’s potential production goes.
“He’s a lot more comfortable running our offense, making the reads and, especially, throwing the ball,” Marsell said. “Densel just looks much more confident this season.”
Barnes said the daily repetition of making decisions in the Indian River offense “makes you a better player. I’ve kind of grown up with the Wing-T, so I pretty much know the reads by now. It almost becomes second nature when to keep the ball and when to give it off. And we have such good backs, it makes my job a lot easier.”
Although Barnes is a smallish quarterback in stature at just 5-foot-10, 175 pounds, he plays a lot bigger than that.
“He’s really worked on strengthening his lower body and shedding tacklers,” Marsell said. “You notice that not very many tacklers bring him down on the first hit. That’s what sets most of the great runners apart.”
And once Barnes is in the clear, forget about it. He has blazing speed and a nose for the end zone.
“I’ve worked really hard in the offseason trying to get more speed and strength,” Barnes said. “Losing that championship game really motivated all of us to work harder in the weight room. So that we don’t have any excuses this time.”
Marsell said that Barnes has shown a noticeable improvement in the passing game as well. “Last year, sometimes he didn’t make the right reads,” Marsell said. “Now he’s looking off receivers better and looks a lot more at ease in the pocket. He’s learned to use his feet and not just his arm.”
Barnes said because Indian River doesn’t pass that often, it’s kind of a surprise when the Warriors do go to the air.