TAMPA, Fla. — In many ways, Devan Barrett resembles every other freshman preparing for his first year of college football.
The Tampa, Fla., native started playing when he was about 7. He grew up perched in front of a television, watching great running backs tear through NFL defenses.
By the time he was an upperclassman at Tampa Catholic High School, the 4-star running back had been pursued by the nation’s top programs. Alabama had showed interest. Ohio State called often. As the speedy rusher closed in on a final decision, Florida State, Notre Dame and Florida were also on his short list.
Barrett committed to Auburn, where he’s now going through his first preseason camp on the Plains. He, like the other members of the Tigers’ 2017 class, is learning. Like his classmates, he’s trying to put on weight and knows he needs to choose a major sooner rather than later.
He’s also playing with an advantage that could help him get on the field before other newcomers in orange and blue.
See, when Barrett was watching Ronnie Brown and Carnell “Cadillac” Williams dodge defenders in the NFL, he overheard conversations other pee wee players likely weren’t privy to.
That’s because in the background of those TV games, Barrett could hear his uncle, David Barrett, and family friend, Jeris McIntyre, reminiscing about their playing days — Barrett as a fullback for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and McIntyre as a former Auburn and Kansas City Chiefs receiver.
Oh, and of course his father was involved. Reggie Barrett was a star at UTEP before the Detroit Lions picked him in the third round of the 1991 NFL Draft.
“He’s been around this game for a very long time,” Reggie said of his son. “Not just with friends, but obviously with of course, Jeris, a lot of family members, myself, who experienced college football. He’s learned quite a bit over the years from a lot of different people up to this point.”
Devan didn’t just hear the commotion in the background, either — he listened. When becoming a college player and then a pro became his own goals, he had a support staff other top prospects would have killed for already built in.
That explains some of the praise Barrett has received this month in practice. He’s an elusive running back who possesses a receiver’s skill set, too. However, his prowess on the field is just the beginning.
“I’ve been coaching and teaching Devan from the physical aspect of the game, but also from a mental standpoint,” Reggie Barrett told SEC Country this summer. “How to prepare, what to be prepared for. How this is going to go, how that’s going to go. We had many of those talks on every level he’s played. And going to Auburn, playing college football is no different.”
So if Barrett hears his name called this fall, chances are he’ll be ready. He’s been preparing for years.
Home sweet Auburn
For a while, it seemed Barrett would end up at Florida. He sported Gators gloves and talked about the team often. Being close to home was a draw, but the environment Barrett encountered on visits to Auburn was what he was looking for after growing up in such a tight-knit football family.
“I mean it’s kind of what everyone should look for,” Barrett said. ” You want to feel welcomed home when you step on campus and go into a locker room. You want that atmosphere.”
It helped Auburn’s cause that he spent most of his visit alongside Nate Craig-Myers, who played with Barrett in high school. The receiver and Auburn’s contingent of Florida players, including Ryan Davis and others, also made Barrett feel comfortable.
Being surrounded by fans at Tiger Walk or inside Jordan-Hare Stadium also made Barrett feel he belonged.
“It’s crazy down there on game day,” Barrett said. “The fans are crazy. It’s just like everyone’s there for you, watching you.”
The former Tigers he spent so many years watching, heard about and studied — think Bo Jackson and Rudi Johnson — also came to mind.
“I used to watch them all the time when they were in the league,” Barrett said. “I know a lot about them, actually now. I’ve looked at past film and stuff like that. They’re kind of role models just like my dad to me. I just watched all their tapes and tried to be just like them.”
So why not walk through the same hallways and tunnels they did? And similarly to some of those greats, Barrett might get the chance to play early in his career.
He’s already put himself in the competition for Auburn’s No. 3 running back spot. Coach Gus Malzahn, who watches for how freshmen react the first time suiting up in the stadium, was pleased. He reported Barrett had around 10 carries in the Tigers’ first scrimmage and added a couple of receptions.
This is the camp Barrett was hoping for, and he’s been reminded of the opportunities that come with playing in the SEC.
“I always say you never know, you could be out there playing in the national title game or on a team that wins a national title,” McIntyre said. “Him and Nate (Craig-Myers) I tell them, you just never know. That’s a big part of being in the SEC and playing in the SEC West. If you win the West, you’re probably going to be in the playoff race, playoff hunt. That’s one of the perks of playing in a conference like that.”
That’s a big part of why Barrett decided to play for Malzahn, running backs coach Tim Horton and the Tigers. He watched in 2016 when Kerryon Johnson started strong and then Kamryn Pettway took over. Playing behind that backfield duo excited Barrett.
“I wanted to compete with the best and stay up there with the best,” Barrett said. “I expect a lot from myself. I mean nothing less. When I get on campus it’s strictly business. It’s about the team, the program and my family. Helping my family and my teammates while I’m there. That’s how my mind is.”
Following the leaders
Barrett admits he doesn’t mind being yelled at. And he wants tips and advice from Pettway and Johnson. When he’s not communicating with the veterans, he watches their every move from the training room, film room and anywhere in between.
“I think it’s an excellent position he’s in,” Reggie Barrett said. “You learn how to prepare for upcoming games, for practice, the mental and physical approach to games, how to take care of your body. They don’t necessarily need him to start, but he does have the skill set and the ability to compete with those guys to potentially earn the right to get on that field.”
Fitting in with older players isn’t easy, but Barrett is making the transition as smoothly as a freshman can. In fact, Johnson already sees some of himself in Barrett.
“He’s a very smart guy. He’s picked up the offense just as quick as I did when I first got here,” Johnson said. “So I think he’s put himself in a nice position. He brings a little something to the table, much like Kam [Martin]. He has really good speed. …When he got here first day, he’s very fast, he has really good feet.”
In his first days around Johnson and Pettway, Barrett impressed with his toughness and willingness to attack contact.
“That will help him,” Johnson said. “All of those things will help him in the long run.”
Pettway and Johnson aren’t the only players Barrett is competing against. Malik Miller and Kam Martin made memorable plays last year. JaTarvious Whitlow was switched from receiver to running back before the preseason.
It’ll be tough to stand out, but Barrett is eager to find a way to do it.
“I mean I love competition, so I’m going to go out and compete with them,” Barrett said. “We’re always teammates, we’re always going to love each other, but I’m going to do what’s best for the team and hopefully help each other out, get through this year.”
The next step
Barrett’s family and team-first mentality might have helped him gain a better understanding of what he’s in for in the coming years, but that’s not to say he won’t struggle.
“I think until you go through it there’s nothing you can really say until you get there,” McIntyre said. “I think that’s why a lot of coaches recruit the way they do. The brutal schedule they have, the beating they take — you need three, four, five backs. Until he goes through it he’ll have heard the stories and heard what we’ve said, but him going through it, he’ll figure it out and go for it.”
But Barrett is level-headed, especially for an 18-year-old freshman.
“When I make a mistake it’s just the next step,” Barrett said. “Going to the next play and stuff like that. Coaches say all the time next play, don’t worry about what happened before. Focus on the future.”
So that’s what he’s doing, even when that future includes the bumps and bruises he’s surely to get at some point.
“You just have to take it all in. The injuries and stuff, you can’t sit and harp on it,” Barrett said. “You have to be better. That’s kind of how I look at everything in life. You can’t sit and harp on anything. You’ve got to move on, that’s just how I think about everything.”
So he’ll move — fast. And the timing might allow him to do so on a big stage.
Reflecting on his playing days, McIntyre sees similarities to the team Barrett has joined.
“In 2003 we had the more talented team, but we went through some growing pains that year and ’03 kind of set it up for 2004,” McIntyre said. “I think it’s similar to this past season where the talent was there … but it just didn’t go our way.”
Auburn has more pieces and lots of returners in 2017. The Tigers will travel to Clemson in Week 2 instead of opening against the defending national champions. Malzahn will likely settle on one quarterback, barring injury, and offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey plans to run the football in a more balanced offense.
“I think it’s all set up to be a great year,” McIntyre said.
For Barrett, it’s everything he’s dreamed of since he started watching NFL games as a youngster. And his family, focus on the team and ability to handle the unexpected might allow him to live out his dream instead of watching from the sidelines.
“I mean some people just have that mindset of being that dog. I feel like I have that mindset,” Barrett said. “I have my mind set on going in there and playing. I’m focused on getting that third position. I’m getting ready to play my freshman year. This is what I’ve dreamed of, so hopefully it works out that way.”