Humble Barnes focused on improving

Deion Barnes smiled under his flat-brimmed Yankees cap Wednesday. He laughed and seemed relaxed with reporters crowding around him with their cameras and recorders.

He shook his head -- but still continued grinning -- as he talked about missing some sacks during the regular season. He didn't seem disappointed, didn't seem angry with himself, but his parents seemed to intimate that was just a show for the media.

"I go by what he thinks he should do," his mother, Cynthia, said. "And he said he wanted to have like 13 sacks and, when he didn't get that, he was disappointed."

She turned to her husband, Mike, and asked him for some reassurance. He agreed: "Oh yeah, he was disappointed."

"Do you ever watch him when he doesn't get a sack?" Cynthia asked. "He. Is. Pissed. He doesn't want anyone to say anything or touch him. He just comes back with a vengeance."

Barnes left that anger on the field on Wednesday, but the defensive end spoke passionately about his first season as a starter. He led the Nittany Lions with six sacks as a redshirt freshman, and his trophy for Big Ten freshman of the year still rests on a mantle back home in north Philadelphia. But he didn't talk about his successes on Wednesday. No, he talked about the misses.

He didn't smile because he was pleased with six sacks. He shook his head because, he said, he should've had at least 10.

Four months have passed since he last threw on shoulder pads and stepped foot inside Beaver Stadium, but he still remembers those missed sacks. He talked about them as if they happened yesterday. He can't seem to forget; he knows them all. Each and every one.

"I had one missed against Iowa, two against Temple -- one against Temple, I can't believe I missed. It was like he was right there," Barnes said, extending his arms as if still trying to wrap up that signal-caller. "And I missed one against Ohio State, too."

That attitude doesn't surprise Barnes' high school coach, Northeast's Chris Riley. The longtime football coach said he could think, if he absolutely had to, of maybe just two other players who worked as hard or harder than Barnes in a quarter-century of coaching.

He never showed up late to a workout. Never missed a practice. Showed up on off days. And Barnes was forced to trudge five blocks to the Broad Street Line subway, then take the connecting 70-bus to reach the red-bricked high school and those practices.

He never complained about the hour-long commute. He just threw on his headphones, bobbed his head along to Young Jeezy, and went to work. Even now, it's the same story. On spring afternoons in Happy Valley, he'll head to Holuba Hall to hit the bags and put in extra work. Sometimes, the quarterbacks will be inside the cavernous facility, to launch some footballs. But Barnes doesn't mind being alone.

"Once you have a guy like him in your back pocket," Riley said, pausing slightly, "you can beat the world."

He's focusing on his inside game this spring -- another "weakness" he didn't mind sharing while mostly skimming over his strengths -- because Barnes never appears to be satisfied. With the way the defensive end talks, his mother wasn't aware 13 sacks was unusual until a reporter told her that fewer than 10 players in the nation reached that number last season.

Barnes constantly readjusts his expectations. In high school, he figured no one wanted him. So he aimed to get a scholarship. Once that happened, he said he strived to become a "good" player. And then, when he committed and arrived at Penn State, he worked on becoming great.

He didn't share his goals or numbers Wednesday, but fans can expect those numbers are set high for the upcoming season. During practice, he leaped out of his stance like a jack-in-the-box every time the pigskin twitched. He crouched toward the ground, his heels inches from the turf, and hit the bags with such might that it seemed as if he could play tomorrow.

"He's unreal," said offensive tackle Adam Gress, who has the fortune (misfortune?) of lining up against Barnes in the spring. "He's one of the best defensive ends I've played against. Not just here -- against other teams. ... He's bigger, faster and stronger. He's always got a full tank of gas."

Riley, his high school coach, often leaned on him as almost an assistant coach years ago. If there was a discipline problem, sometimes Barnes would come up with the punishment. If someone took a day off from practice, Barnes would be the one to greet them.

And when his team lost big in the title game his junior season, Barnes kept a team of moping near-transfers together and won the title the next year -- by blocking a punt and scoring the game-winning touchdown.

That continued drive has served Barnes well so far at Penn State. Defensive tackle DaQuan Jones called him "something special" because he's always at full-speed -- even during walkthroughs. Bill O'Brien has constantly lauded the young defensive end, and Gress even motioned toward Barnes on Wednesday when talking about veteran players.

"He's considered an older guy?" a reporter asked.

"Yeah," Gress said with a laugh. "Deion's definitely one of the older guys. He's just not like an older guy, per se."

His family, coach and teammates aren't concerned about that praise sticking inside Barnes' head. He focuses more on what he still has to do than reflects on what he's done well. And that doesn't seem in danger of changing anytime soon.

That was a sentiment echoed by everyone who knows Deion. His mother summed it up succinctly: "He always thinks he can do better.

"That's just Deion."