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Inside Auburn running back Peyton Barber’s decision to leave early for NFL

Michael Niziolek

mniziolek@ledger-enquirer.com

Auburn running back Peyton Barber breaks a tackle Saturday, Nov. 21, 2015 at Jordan-Hare Stadium. (Michael Niziolek | Ledger-Enquirer.com)
Auburn running back Peyton Barber breaks a tackle Saturday, Nov. 21, 2015 at Jordan-Hare Stadium. (Michael Niziolek | Ledger-Enquirer.com) Michael Niziolek | Ledger-Enquirer.com

Auburn running back Peyton Barber’s decision whether to enter this year’s NFL draft came down to the wire.

Barber woke up Monday morning weighing his options with the NCAA deadline looming later that afternoon.

In December, returning to Auburn for his junior season was a foregone conclusion for the Georgia native. He wanted to build on a breakout year that saw him surpass the 1,000-yard mark.

It wasn’t until after the Tigers’ 31-10 win over Memphis in the Birmingham Bowl that Barber started evaluating options beyond staying on campus.

Weeks of discussions and research revealed his once distant dreams of pursuing an NFL career weren’t as far off as he thought.

Waiting game

The NFL wasn’t on Peyton Barber’s radar during the regular season, but that didn’t keep scouts from noticing the running back when he ran for more than 550 yards in Auburn’s first five games.

Injuries to Roc Thomas and Jovon Robinson opened the door for Barber to emerge from a four-way competition for playing time as the Tigers’ primary back.

The 5-foot-11, 225-pounder bulldozed his way into the starting lineup thanks to 115 yards in the Chic-Fil-A Kickoff Game at the Georgia Dome against Louisville.

“When we texted before the game, I told him if he got the opportunity to take it and run with it, don’t give it back,” Barber’s Milton High School running backs coach Gary Sylvestri said. “I know I’m biased, but I knew he was ready.”

Barber made a pair of game-saving plays in his first career start against 41-point underdog Jacksonville State the following week.

Before scoring the winning touchdown in overtime, Barber converted a short screen pass into a first down on a third-and-9. Barber broke multiple tackles on the play to get the ball inside the 5-yard line.

On the heels of Barber’s heroic efforts, Barber’s parents, Ken and Lori, started to hear from interested parties looking to gauge their son’s interest in the NFL.

The phone calls continued throughout the regular season, but Ken Barber delivered the same message to anyone who reached out to them.

“We didn’t want any distractions for Peyton,” Ken Barber said. “We told people inquiring we weren’t going to talk about any future opportunities until after the season.”

An opportunity

The process for entering the NFL draft unfolded slowly for Peyton Barber.

Following the Birmingham Bowl, his father spent weeks gathering information. The feedback he received from eight to nine sources with ties to the league was consistent — Barber’s skill set as an all-around back is coveted by a number of general managers.

The extensive homework also produced a consensus that Peyton was likely a day three pick (rounds four through seven).

“Is Peyton an Adrian Peterson? No,” Ken Barber said. “Is he a first-rounder? No. Second-rounder? No, but there are teams looking for an all-around back with his size and character.”

The strength of 2017’s running back class was something the Barbers were told to consider.

While this year’s draft includes a number of high-profile names like Alabama’s Derrick Henry and Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliot, next year’s draft features an incredibly talented class of running backs with four of this season’s leading rushers expected to be part of the draft pool in 2017.

“Next year is going to be very deep, and he has a different skill set that teams are looking for than this year’s group,” Ken Barber said.

Beyond determining his draft stock, Peyton leaned on his family and former teammates for perspective. Barber has multiple cousins with NFL experience and two of them at his position.

Chicago Bears running back Jeremy Langford is Barber’s cousin. Langford’s grandmother is the sister of Barber’s paternal grandmother.

He also remains close with former Auburn teammates currently in the NFL — Tre Mason, Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant.

The three former Auburn running backs were Barber’s role models during his first two years on campus.

Those closest to Peyton sensed him warming to the possibility of leaving school early as the deadline neared.

“I talk with him and his parents all the time,” Sylvestri said. “I was prepared for it as one of the possibilities. They did their homework as a family. I know it wasn’t easy for him. He loves Auburn and Tiger nation. I think the totality of things made it feel like the right time. It helped that he had such a great year.”

Depth perception

Peyton Barber received noticeably fewer carries at the end of the season. Jovon Robinson stepped in for a banged up Barber against Ole Miss and played well enough to earn an increased workload the rest of the season.

Competition for playing time at Auburn’s deepest position would have carried over into next season with all four of the Tigers’ running backs expected to return.

Ken Barber downplayed Auburn’s crowded backfield as a motivating factor for his son’s decision.

“It would have been a great fit,” Ken Barber said. “Peyton was really excited about the rotation next year. Jovon, Roc and Kerryon are all great backs. The future would have been great with the four of them.”

In December, Peyton addressed the prospect of another position battle saying he “was up for the challenge.”

Two factors that did weigh on Barber’s mind were his proximity to graduation and health.

The running back is only 30 credits away from graduating. If Barber decided to return to Auburn in the fall, he would have started working on a master’s degree. Declaring for the NFL won’t significantly set him back in securing his diploma.

Barber needed a couple of days, but he’s feeling 100 percent. Fellow former Milton alum Carl Lawson struggled with injuries the past two seasons. As Lawson’s friend and roommate Barber understands how quickly his health could change.  

“The window for players is so small,” Sylvestri said referring to his former players.

If Barber returned for his junior season and suffered a significant injury, his NFL opportunity might vanish.

“The shelf life for a running back is very short,” Ken Barber said.

Change of heart

Peyton Barber met with coach Gus Malzahn Saturday in Auburn for a face-to-face sit down. Barber tried setting up a meeting earlier in the week, but Malzahn’s demands on the recruiting trail made scheduling the discussion a challenge.

Barber hadn’t decided if he was leaving but wanted to be up front with Malzahn since he was seriously considering it.

“It was tough,” Ken Barber said. “Peyton’s very loyal, loyal almost to a fault. He doesn’t want to let anybody down.“

Auburn was caught off guard by Peyton’s interest in the NFL. Barber wasn’t one of the players that requested information about his draft status from the NFL Draft Advisory Board in December.

With Barber being a projected late round pick, the scouting experts’ draft grade would have likely been a simple recommendation to return to school.

“If you are an underclassman and not a first-, second- or third-round guy, you don’t really get anything from it,” Ken Barber said. “We were comfortable with the research we did in getting a grade for him ourselves.”

Ken Barber described Malzahn as “supportive” as his son described why he was considering leaving early.

“He wants what’s best for Peyton like he does for all his players,” Ken Barber said. “He wanted to make sure we explored everything thoroughly. Peyton told him we did as much as we could and felt good about it.”

Road to the combine

The next stage of Peyton Barber’s career kicks off with six to eight weeks of intense training.

Barber is starting a training program similar to the one offered by IMG Academy. Barber will go through daily workouts and receive instruction from a running backs coach to prepare for February’s NFL combine and Auburn’s pro-day.

“Peyton is already in great shape, but he wants to be in the absolute best conditioning he can be,” Ken Barber said.

A standout performance at the combine could bump Barber’s draft grade up a round or two and put to rest question marks surrounding his perceived lack of high-end speed. 

Barber addressed the issue in December when asked if there was anything left he had to prove to fans next season.

“People think I'm just a downhill runner and I don't really have any speed. I don't feel like that's the case,” Barber said. “I really haven't been given an opportunity.”

In researching his decision to declare for the NFL draft, Barber went through a number of different combine drills with a trainer.

Barber put up times in the 40-yard dash and shuttle run that compared favorable to draft eligible backs from previous years.

“Not many people know he ran track and was a good sprinter for a guy his size,” Ken Barber said. “Working on those combine drills helped him. It kind of showed him he had everything he needed. He had the 1,000-yard season, knew he could put up great times and that was important.”

Peyton hasn’t signed with an agent, but will continue to evaluate his options while he trains.

“He isn’t in a hurry to do those things,” Ken Barber said. “He has a company in mind, but nothing is signed yet. He wants to make the best possible decisions.”

Grinder

Ken Barber speaks with pride when discussing his son’s accomplishments.

The elder Barber knows first hand the struggles Peyton’s overcome to put himself in the conversation for the NFL draft.

Peyton has ADHD and like his father is dyslexic. The learning disorders presented Peyton with a unique set of challenges to overcome in the classroom and on the field.

“One of the things about being ADHD and having dyslexia is your work ethic becomes even more important,” Ken Barber said. “Everything becomes about repetition. Someone that has them has to work that much harder at everything.”

His son thrived in the face of adversity to become a 1,000-yard rusher and three-time SEC Academic Honor Roll honoree by being a “grinder.”

“Once he sinks his teeth into something, he’s going to make it happen,” Ken Barber said.

It’s a trait his former coach noticed early on in Barber’s time at Milton High School.

“He’s been sharpened,” Sylvestri said. “Pressure doesn’t make diamonds out of everybody, but I think it did for Peyton.”

Peyton Barber’s determination is what those close to him believe will help him succeed at the next level.

“He wants an opportunity,” Ken Barber said. “History has shown whenever he’s got an opportunity he’s taken it.”

Michael Niziolek covers Auburn football for the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer. Email him at mniziolek@ledger-enquirer.com or follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Google+

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