Austin Barber: Patient recruit and ferocious blocker

Austin Barber’s recruitment story sounds like something you’d see in a movie or a television drama series.

The offensive lineman held offers from a litany of FBS programs, including Duke, Georgia Tech, Louisville, Kentucky, Maryland, North Carolina, Ole Miss and Mississippi State. However, he had his heart set on a school that hadn’t offered him.

Barber grew up in Jacksonville in a diehard Florida Gators household. He always knew he would sign with UF if they offered him. It didn’t really matter who the coaches were, what the depth chart looked like or how Florida’s facilities stacked up to the competition. He was simply holding out as long as he could in hopes that he would get that offer.

“I grew up a really, really big Florida fan, me and my dad and especially my whole family,” Barber said. “We grew up watching Florida. We know all about them and things like that. I’ve been in contact with Coach [John] Hevesy for a little bit, and he and I have a pretty great relationship.”

As the calendar flipped to December, the Gators still hadn’t offered. Barber started to formulate contingency plans. First there was his six-month-long commitment to Minnesota. He decommitted from the Golden Gophers once schools closer to home intensified their interest in him.

Barber woke up on Dec. 17, the second day of the early signing period, expecting to be a Miami Hurricane but still holding out hope for an early Christmas present.

Florida offered him later that day, and he committed instantly. He signed the next day and is only a few weeks away from enrolling.

“When Florida offered me, I knew I had to take this and run with it, and I know it’s the best for me and my family,” he said.

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That day was the satisfying conclusion to a high school career that went largely under the radar. He played his first two seasons at Yulee High School before transferring to Trinity Christian Academy for his final two years, a school known as one of North Florida’s biggest recruiting factories.

Under head coach Verlon Dorminey’s tutelage, Barber improved his understanding of the fundamentals of playing on the offensive line. He was named the Class 3A Offensive Player of the Year in 2020. He and fellow UF signee Marcus Burke helped deliver the Conquerors’ eighth state championship as seniors.

While Barber’s 6-foot-6, 290-pound body obviously made him stand out from most other high school players, it was his aggressive mentality that impressed Dorminey the most. He could’ve just coasted by on brute strength at that level, but he didn’t.

“There’s several times when you see him just get a hold of kids and just drive them all the way out of bounds or drive them all the way into the dirt,” Dorminey said. “When you see that stuff from a kid on the offensive front, you know they’re going to be pretty special.

“I think the biggest thing about Austin is, you know, a lot of offensive linemen today are finesse. This kid’s got some dog in him. He’s really, really physical. I think that’s going to play well for him at this level because, if you play in the SEC, you see that every day.”

That “dog mentality” likely was forged by his one half-brother and two stepbrothers, all of whom are older than him. Zane Cruz, one of his brothers, played linebacker at Charleston Southern and is currently a graduate assistant coach at Coastal Carolina. Growing up in that environment as the youngest of four competitive boys forced him to become tough to stand his ground.

“I want to be kind of like [Cruz],” he said. “He’s always been a guy to grind and work for everything he’s had, and so that really motivates me and influences me to do what he did because he’s basically like my role model.”

Barber said he’s also motivated by the sacrifices his parents made so that he could pursue his football dreams. He wants to repay them.

“I want to take care of my parents,” he said. “They’ve done so much for me with all this football stuff and switching schools and all that. And I kind of want to take care of them, and that’s why I put so much effort and work into my craft so I can ultimately take care of my family and have them not working for the rest of their lives.”

Barber is another typical Hevesy signing. He’s freakishly large, highly athletic, versatile and perhaps not ranked as highly by the recruiting analysts as he should’ve been.

Dorminey said that Barber’s decision to wait until the Florida offer came in might’ve hurt him in the rankings. He didn’t play the recruiting game of committing to three different schools and releasing top-17 lists on the Fourth of July. He stayed out of the public spotlight for the most part and just worked on becoming the best player he can be.

“I thought [UF] should’ve offered early when he was getting other SEC offers,” Dorminey said. “Honestly, there’s some kids that had offers that when I watched them on film, I didn’t think they were as good as Austin.”

Barber’s athleticism figures to be his most valuable attribute for the Gators. He played linebacker and quarterback when he was younger because he was always one of the best athletes on the team. When he got to high school and shot up to 6 1/2-feet tall and more than 300 pounds, it became clear that offensive line would be his future. He also played basketball at Trinity and can dunk.

That elite athleticism should make him effective as a pulling blocker in the running game and gives him the flexibility to play every spot expect for center. He projects as a left tackle long term.

“I consider myself a really big, lengthy, athletic offensive lineman that can kill people in the run game and absolutely maul people,” Barber said. “And then, I have the speed and agility to do really well on the pass-pro as well. I’ve really grown each year. I think I played my best year this year. I try my best to be better and better every year, and I think I really did that with just my run and pass game.”

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Barber also acknowledges that there are a bunch of things he’ll need to improve on once he arrives on campus, with adjusting to the speed of the SEC game and retooling his body at the top of the list. He weighed more than 300 pounds early in high school and actually slimmed down to 290 pounds over the past year.

“I just dominated high school guys; I was just faster than them on the O-Line,” he said. “So, I feel like I’ve just got to up my game speed-wise when I get to Florida and also getting some more of that baby fat off me and getting some of that college strength.”

While earning a scholarship to Florida fulfilled a lifelong dream, Barber doesn’t plan on stopping there. He expects to earn playing time sooner rather than later and leave a legacy in this program.

“I kind of want to come in and be a guy that can really compete for a first spot,” he said. “I feel like I can be the guy that can come in and play early. I’ve still got to go in and grind and things like that. Some long-term goals [are] playing a lot of minutes, being one of the best tackles to come through the University of Florida and be a high draft pick.”

Barber’s been waiting for this opportunity for a long time.

Ethan was born in Gainesville and has lived in the Starke, Florida, area his entire life. He played basketball for five years and knew he wanted to be a sportswriter when he was in middle school. He’s attended countless Gators athletic events since his early childhood, with baseball being his favorite sport to attend. He’s a proud 2019 graduate of the University of Florida and a 2017 graduate of Santa Fe College. He interned with the University Athletic Association’s communications department for 1 ½ years as a student and has spent the last two football seasons writing for InsideTheGators.com. He is a long-suffering fan of the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Tampa Bay Rays. You can follow him on Twitter @ehughes97.