By Jeff Nations
WINCHESTER -- Austin Barnes never spent this much time with his father before during football season.
That's sometimes good, sometimes ... not so much ... for the Shenandoah University senior tight end and son of Hornets head coach Paul Barnes.
On the one hand, getting a chance to be coached by his father for the first time ever in a formal setting has been a real benefit for Austin Barnes. The demands of coaching and a conscious choice not to push his son into playing football mostly kept the elder Barnes away from the football field when his son was playing on it.
"When you're a college coach, you're away from home quite a bit," Paul Barnes said. "My wife will tell you, and we've been married 25 years -- she raised our kids. She was a single-parent mom during football season and recruiting season."
Then again, being the coach's son -- a loaded phrase, right there -- comes with some distinct disadvantages. For one, whatever team standards are set must be met and exceeded by the younger Barnes.
"It's a lot of pressure -- pressure in the community to do well, be an example," Austin Barnes said. "I have a lot of pressure from him to perform and stuff.
"There's like niches -- for every good, there's a bad. But overall I've enjoyed my time playing here. I love Shenandoah, I love the kids here, I love my father and I love the team."
And Austin Barnes has been a big part of his father's team, starting every game since the opener of his sophomore season. It's hardly the stereotypical scenario, though -- he's no glamorous quarterback or high-flying wide receiver. No, it's strictly grunt work for Paul Barnes' son as a hybrid H-back/tight end.
"That's pretty much what I've done, is block," Austin Barnes said. "It's not like I can't catch the ball -- I can --but right now our offense needs to get the simple stuff down, like running the football, before we can really spread it around."
Austin Barnes is frequently on the field with fellow senior Stephen Dellinger in the Hornets' double tight end set, and it is a rare thing indeed to see a pass heading his way. He made his first catch of the year in last Saturday's 20-7 loss to Guilford, a 6-yard screen pass. He's already halfway to last year's total, when he had two catches for 18 yards.
A 6-foot-2, 215-pounder, Austin Barnes is light by traditional tight end standards but excels in the hybrid role first proposed by Shenandoah offensive coordinator Brian Wolf. Frequently in motion, often out of the backfield, Austin Barnes is more apt to administer a kick-out block than tote the ball.
"He has improved tremendously over four years," Paul Barnes said. "He won't back down from anybody. It's made him tougher and a better ballplayer, because he has to play with a chip -- you talk to [offensive line coach Joe Jacoby] and coach Wolf -- he plays with a chip on his shoulder because he has to prove that every time he goes on the field that he deserves to be on the field."
Austin Barnes has spent a good deal of time on the field without his father's ever-present stare this season, as Paul Barnes missed the first game and coached the next two from the press box as he recovered from back surgery. Coach Barnes missed a good deal of practice time, as well, and hated every minute of it.
"It's been kind of rough on our family," Austin Barnes said. "It' was rough for him. Did you ever see, like when it rains, there's like a little puppy dog [watching] the rain and you can just tell he wants to go outside? It's like that. He just wanted to go out there, you could tell. He was fired up."
Paul Barnes is back roaming the sideline now, even if he's still a long way from 100 percent. He'll be there Friday night when the Hornets hit the road to visit Old Dominion Athletic Conference rival Catholic in Washington, D.C. Austin Barnes knew his dad wouldn't stay away a minute longer than absolutely necessary, regardless of the injury.
"It's a long way from his heart -- that's a key Paul Barnes phrase right there," Austin Barnes said with a laugh. "I got that my whole life.
"... He definitely responded, he definitely worked hard to get back. He's the same old coach that he was before."
Paul Barnes called coaching his son "probably the hardest thing I've ever had to do in my life." When things aren't going well -- and a 1-4 start this season is far from ideal -- Austin Barnes is an obvious target for nay-sayers in the community and on campus.
"I don't recommend it for any father because, no matter what happens, they're going to say, 'He's the father's son -- son of the coach,'" Paul Barnes said. "And I told Austin when he came here that he would be in the spotlight whether he wanted to or not, whether it was on the field or off the field."
Austin Barnes has deftly handled any critical remarks that have come his way, and his play on the field has silenced doubters about his own ability. He has five more games to play, and he's looking forward to playing for his dad. After that, he admits he'll likely one day follow in his father's footsteps and coach -- on some level -- football.
"It's a very unique situation," Austin Barnes said. "Me and my father get to see each other every day and he gets to be my coach. It's nice that he's always there -- not everybody gets to experience that with their father."
Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137, or firstname.lastname@example.org