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CHRIS DUFRESNE / ON COLLEGE FOOTBALL

Oregon's Kenjon Barner has no fears about going all-out against Auburn

The Ducks running back does not remember a violent collision during a kickoff return Oct. 9 that left him with a severe concussion, and he sees that as a good thing.

January 08, 2011|Chris Dufresne
  • Oregon running back Kenjon Barner tries to fend off UCLA defensive back Sheldon Price on a 48-yard run last season.
Oregon running back Kenjon Barner tries to fend off UCLA defensive back… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Scottsdale, Ariz. — You need a short memory to play football, and sometimes no memory is even better.

Kenjon Barner, Oregon's potential secret weapon in the Bowl Championship Series title game, will trot to his kickoff return position against Auburn on Monday night and try to make magic happen.

It could have been a daunting prospect, had he been suffering recurring nightmares as a result of a violent collision during a kickoff return Oct. 9 at Washington State, a moment that left teammates in tears.

Barner lay motionless for what seemed like forever before he was taken from the field by ambulance to Pullman Regional Hospital. The good news was that he suffered "only" a severe concussion.

The better news: He remembers none of it.

There are some things not even your brain wants you to know.

"I kind of look at it that way, as a gift," Barner said this week. "I didn't really have to know too much about the hit."

The blow was delivered, as Barner was returning a kickoff, by Washington State's Anthony Carpenter.

Barner was out before he hit the ground.

Tough-guy football players and no-nonsense coaches turned to mush.

"There were at least five or six guys bawling," Oregon senior linebacker Spencer Paysinger said. "Coaches were covering people's eyes with towels."

Barner's father, sister and brother rushed to the scene. LaMichael James, Barner's best friend and tailback teammate, was inconsolable.

"I didn't know what was going on," James said this week. "Seeing your best friend get hit like that is like seeing your best friend get hit in a car crash."

Everything turned out OK. Barner was transported back to Eugene, where James visited him the next day in the hospital and showed his friend a replay of the hit on a cellphone.

Barner remembers nothing about that day except warming up before the game.

What could have been a season- or career-ending injury turned out to be a story to tell his kids one day.

Barner was back in the lineup Nov. 6 against Washington. He sat out two games. He was taken off special teams at first but was returning kicks again Nov. 26 against Arizona.

Barner surprised everyone, even himself: "I healed extremely fast."

Barner had actually passed every medical test by the Ducks' game against USC on Oct. 30, but he was held out for another week.

"Of course there were doubts," Barner said. "I was just nervous. Will it happen again? But you have to get over it if you're going to play this game. If you play scared, you're going to get hurt."

Barner's family implored Kenjon to take his time returning to the field but left the decision to him. Barner's dad, Gary, still won't talk about the hit at Washington State.

"If it came on TV he would walk out of the room or turn the channel," Kenjon Barner said. "We have never really actually talked about it. It's not that he didn't want to acknowledge it, but it scared him. It scared my family."

In terms of this week and Monday's BCS title game, you may ask: Who cares?

Who is Kenjon Barner?

Does Auburn even know?

"I hope they forget about me," Barner joked.

Barner is …

"The best player no one is talking about," Paysinger, his teammate, said.

Barner could be the difference against Auburn. He is basically a carbon-copy of James who doesn't play as much only because James is a first-team All American.

Both are redshirt sophomores.

Barner is 5 feet 11, 180 pounds to James' 5-9 and 185. James' best time in the 100 meters is 10.52 seconds, a tick faster than Barner's 10.76.

While James was tearing up defenses with his jab-steps and speed bursts, rushing for 1,682 yards and 21 touchdowns, Barner was contributing 519 yards and six touchdowns. Barner's 6.5 yards-per-carry average this season is better than James' 6.0.

Oregon offensive linemen say James and Barner could be clones.

"Half the time we don't even know who is in the backfield," center Jordan Holmes said.

Oregon State's public-address announcer couldn't keep the two names straight last month in Corvallis, calling James' name when Barner had the ball and Barner's when it was James.

No wonder: James gained 134 yards rushing and Barner finished with 133.

Barner has become the extra, added bonus in Oregon's already potent offense. He was a star running back out of Riverside Notre Dame, but Oregon recruited him to play defensive back.

Barner was just getting comfortable in that role when Ducks Coach Chip Kelly, in the spring of 2009, asked him to switch back to tailback.

Barner was nervous at first, wondering if he had lost a step, but he rushed for 366 yards during the 2009 season as James' backup. Barner then had a break-out game against Ohio State, totaling 227 all-purpose yards in the Rose Bowl.

"I think he is very underappreciated," receiver D.J. Davis said of Barner.

If Auburn loads up to stop James on Monday, watch out for Barner. Expect the Ducks to use both in the game at the same time.

Despite the trauma at Washington State on Oct. 9, Barner expects to be a kickoff threat. Trainers and doctors warned that one concussion makes Barner susceptible to more. You don't need a doctorate to know most violent collisions occur on special teams.

"It's something I enjoy," Barner said of returning kicks. "It's a thrill. It gets your blood going."

What about the risk?

"I'll be back there," he said. "This game is special. Not everyone can do this. Just to have the ability to do it, and the drive to do it, that's why I came back."

But he could get hurt.

Barner: "You can get hurt walking across the street."

chris.dufresne@latimes.com

twitter.com/dufresnelatimes

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