AJ Barner didn’t catch a single pass during Indiana football’s storybook 2020 season, his freshman year. He caught 14 in 2021, putting up 162 yards and a single touchdown off of a deep strike from Jack Tuttle.
Now, entering the 2022 season, Barner is front and center of the Hoosiers’ tight end group. Head coach Tom Allen made that literal when he brought Barner along with him to Big Ten Media Days.
Barner is slated to start for Indiana following Peyton Hendershot’s departure for the NFL, but he didn’t get into that position by passively moving up the Hoosiers’ depth chart.
Catching passes was a role largely reserved for Hendershot, Indiana’s leading receiver in 2021. Meanwhile, Barner was proving his worth on special teams by blocking punts, tackling and even getting in a punt return.
He’s still putting that work in, dedicating large portions of his free time to weight room workouts in Memorial Stadium.
The younger members of Indiana’s tight ends room see that, freshmen like Ryan Miller and Brody Foley or redshirt freshmen James Bomba and Aaron Steinfeldt. Nobody appreciates that more than Kevin Wright, Indiana’s tight ends coach.
It’s not just Barner though, it’s guys like redshirt senior Ryan Barnes and redshirt junior Trey Walker. The older members of Indiana’s tight ends room have stepped up as mentors for the underclassmen, Wright said in a press conference Thursday.
“All those guys are so unselfish,” Wright said. “They’re willing to spend time with the younger guys and make sure that the room is as good as it can be.”
Wright has been vocal on social media through the offseason, regularly tweeting out bios of tight ends in his room from the top of the depth chart to the bottom. It’s all a part of Wright’s culture of building the room.
Steinfeldt, who came to Indiana from Bloomington North High School just up the road from Memorial Stadium, believes his strengths are his abilities as a receiver to get into open space and haul in passes. He’s not the most physical guy, he said, so he’s been doing some extra work on his run blocking.
That’s where things Barner’s trips to the weight room come in.
“I think learning behind guys like AJ and just mentoring James [Bomba] as well, I think it’s helped me a long way to become a better football player,” Steinfeldt said.
Bomba, a product of Bloomington South High School, said that while Barner has always been one of the hardest workers he’s ever known, he’s developed into more of a vocal leader as of late.
“I can ask him anything and he knows it,” Bomba said. “He’s just so smart and cares so much about this team and winning. He just wants to be so good that his work ethic is through the roof.”
While the younger members of the tight end room may not see too many passes thrown their way this season, they’ll have the same opportunities as Barner did to prove themselves on special teams, Wright said.
They’ll have Wright, Barner, Barnes and Walker there to guide them on their way.
“That’s special, and I think that’s what we’ve been able to grow the last few years,” Wright said.