Austin Barnes has been remarkably consistent throughout his career as a punter.
His yards-per-punt average hasn’t varied more than a half yard either way since his senior season at O’Fallon High School in the fall of 2012. And he’s done it in all kinds of climate, through the icy cold of his four seasons at Eastern Michigan University to the coastal winds of his final year as a graduate transfer at East Carolina.
Barnes was selected to showcase his consistency one more time at the second annual SPIRAL Tropical Bowl on Jan. 14 in Daytona, Florida. Thirty-eight players who participated in last year’s inaugural showcase for NCAA FBS seniors currently are in the NFL.
Barnes believes he’ll make that next step as well.
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“First of all, I’m just really excited to go to Daytona, but mostly just honored to be included and have the opportunity to be there with so many great players,” said Barnes from the O’Fallon home of his mother, Angela Barnes. “A few teams have been out for film and to watch practice and punters from the bowl games typically get an invitation to the combine. That fits in with what I’m hoping for.
“I definitely hope to go in the draft.”
Barnes is one of three metro-east kickers who will be competing in a college bowl game in the coming weeks. Fellow O’Fallon alumnus Tucker McCann is the placekicker for the Texas Bowl-bound Missouri Tigers. Belleville West graduate Austin Seibert will handle both placekicking and punting duties for the Oklahoma Sooners during their quest for a National Championship.
Barnes was a two-time semifinalist for the Ray Guy Award to college football’s top punter at Eastern Michigan, including the 2015 season when he tied the EMU record with a 43.6-yard average. He had a 44.6-yards-per-punt average after the four games the year prior when a case of mononucleosis forced him to take a medical redshirt year.
“My spleen was enlarged to twice its normal size and the doctors said a good hit could cause it to rupture,” Barnes said. “The coaches thought, and I agreed, that I should redshirt the rest of that year. It worked out though, because I was in those four games and NCAA rules allowed me to have the full year back.”
But Barnes finished his bachelor’s degree in communications at Eastern Michigan before completing his playing eligibility. Illinois, Iowa and Michigan opened their punting spots open to a transfer, but Barnes picked East Carolina instead when EMU head coach Chris Creighton refused to sign off on a transfer to the Big Ten schools.
It was a rough season for the Pirates, who finished 3-9, with a disappointing end for Barnes.
I just keep training and trying to get better I have an agent and he takes care of the other things. He tells me the future is bright.
His 44 yards-per-punt was a career best and the 19th best in the nation.
But in the early morning hours of Nov. 18, following a Senior Day win over Cincinnati, Barnes was arrested and charged with driving while intoxicated. ECU head coach Scottie Montgomery suspended Barnes indefinitely, which amounted to the team’s final game of the season, a 73-13 loss to Memphis.
Barnes, 23, is still awaiting his court date. In the meantime, he says the incident has been humbling.
“I’ve got to be responsible and accountable and remain focused on my future,” he said. “We have to learn from our mistakes. I’m looking forward to this blowing over.”
The invitation to the Tropical Bowl, he added, came at the right time.
NFL teams do not often use draft picks for punters. There was a comparative bumper crop of punters taken in 2016, when one was taken in the sixth round and two more in the seventh. Three is the most punters selected in an NFL draft since 1986, when four were taken.
But Barnes already has attracted interest. The Kansas City Chiefs, Indianapolis Colts, Green Bay Packers and Cincinnati Bengals all have requested video of Barnes and visited Eastern Carolina to watch practice.
Though Barnes says he believes his name will be called during the 2018 NFL Draft from April 26-28, but he’ll be ready to meet his opportunities however they present themselves.
“I just keep training and trying to get better. I have an agent and he takes care of the other things,” Barnes says. “He tells me the future is bright.”
At one point during his freshman season at Missouri, McCann went a three-game span without making a field goal. Things got bad enough that fans at Faurot Field booed him before making an attempt.
But the O’Fallon High School graduated bounced back with a better sophomore campaign in 2017. McCann was good on 14 of 16 attempts and a perfect 4-for-4 on attempts of more than 40 yards. He went 50 of 52 on point-after touchdowns.
“Tucker will be fine,” said Barnes, who was a senior at O’Fallon when McCann was a freshman. “He was just really young and making a big jump from O’Fallon to the SEC. He’s having a great second year.”
McCann’s second-season rebound was almost as remarkable as the Tigers’ rallied from 1-5 to a clean sweep of their remaining schedule and a bowl bid. Missouri and McCann play the Texas Longhorns in the Texas Bowl next Wednsday at 8 p.m.
McCann still holds the Illinois record for the longest field goal, a 60-yarder against Belleville East on Oct. 17, 2015.
The Belleville West graduate was a semifinalist for the Lou Groza Award to the NCAA’s top placekicker in 2017. That’s a long way from a hard sophomore year in which his 68.8 percent field goal percentage nearly cost him his job.
This season has good enough to earn Seibert second-team All-Big 12 honors as a placekicker and honorable mention all-conference as a punter.
He nailed 15 of 18 field goal attempts with a career-best 51-yarder against West Virginia and was perfect on 75 PAT attempts. He also has punted 36 times with a career-best 42.6 yard average, once again making him one of the few college players to handle both placekicking and punting duties.
Seibert has at least one game remaining his junior year. If the Sooners win the Rose Bowl New Year’s Day, he’ll kick again in the National Championship game, Jan. 8.
He’ll go into his senior year ranked third in scoring in OU history. Seibert needs 102 more points — he’s averaging 116 per season — to pass Michael Hunnicutt on the all-time list.