Cajuns’ Matt Barnes may be big for slot receiver, but he fits the job

Redshirt freshman Matt Barnes looks out of place at his new home.

He’s kind of like that old Chris Farley gag: A fat guy in a little coat. He’s more svelte than fat, but with his listed 6-foot-3, 229-pound frame, Barnes isn’t the prototypical slot receiver either. That position has usually been occupied by guys like Denver Broncos receiver Wes Welker, whose small build works to his advantage when operating as an underneath threat.

Not typical, but Ragin’ Cajuns coach Mark Hudspeth doesn’t really care about being typical. When he looks at Barnes, he sees a big guy who can move and catch the ball, and he sees a need to get him on the field.

“Barnes is going to catch any ball in the area code, because he’s that much taller, that much wider (than a typical slot receiver),” Hudspeth said. “He’s a big target across the middle. He’s a little easier to find than the slot receiver that we’ve had in the past. That part is really going to help in some ways.”

Barnes was not likely to see the field much in the Cajuns’ tight end rotation. He was behind more experienced players in Larry Pettis, Nick Byrne and Evan Tatford. His role was likely going to be a situational one in which he saw the field on passing downs.

“Tight end, we were pretty deep,” Barnes said. “There were at least five of us that could’ve played on the field.”

Coaches liked what they saw from Barnes in practices and scrimmages, where he showed off a nice set of hands and deceptive speed. Rather than keeping his potential locked up so he could keep the tight-end label, they moved him to the slot, where he’ll work as a sort of co-starter with junior Al Riles.

The position switch has been pretty painless, Barnes said.

The former prep receiver had to get used to the technical aspects of playing receiver again after spending the last year and change as a tight end, but he’s been putting in the work, staying late after practice for extra help with graduate assistants.

But the skill is there. As a high school senior at Groesbeck (Texas) High School, Barnes hauled in 77 passes for 1,176 yards and 18 touchdowns to earn first team all-state honors from The Associated Press. Barnes said some of those catches came when he was working out of the slot.

That’s why he always expected to find some time at that spot on the field. He just thought he’d be there as a tight end.

“(Offensive coordinator Jay) Johnson told me when he was recruiting me that he would throw me in the slot sometimes,” Barnes said. “So I expected to be there, but I didn’t think I would actually move.”

He might be bigger than the average slot receiver, but coaches and teammates think that can be used to his advantage. Riles thinks his size is actually his best attribute as a slot receiver, especially when its combined with his ability to catch the football.

“With his size playing slot, he’s physical, he can make the blocks but he can still make the catches too,” Riles said.

There are a couple advantages to having prototypical slot receiver size. Smaller players are usually more quick than fast, which is a necessity when running routes in a clogged up area, and it’s easy to lose track of a small receiver in those congested areas.

But there’s also a big disadvantage to being a small slot receiver.

“They block linebackers, they don’t block cornerbacks,” Hudspeth said. “The outside guys block corners, the inside receivers block outside linebackers. In the past, we’ve had Darryl Surgent at 185 pounds blocking a 235-pound outside linebacker. Now you’ve got Matt Barnes, a 235-pound kid that can run and catch and be an effective blocker on the perimeter.”

Barnes doesn’t mind looking out of place. He’ll take being the fat guy in a little coat if it means he can help.

“This is for these seniors,” Barnes said. “However I can send them off, I’ll play fullback. I’ll do whatever I have to do for the seniors and for what’s best for the team.”