North Surry’s Austin Barker is headed down to Cary this weekend to compete in the state 2A tennis championship.
Before that, Barker announced his choice of Lenoir-Rhyne University to play football next fall.
Barker is a standout punter who made the 2012 NCPreps.com 2A All-State team.
The senior averaged 39.8 yards per punt, a respectable number made even more amazing considering how often he had to hold back from giving it his best.
Out of his 28 punts, eight of them were dropped inside the opponent’s 20-yard line, said North football coach Danny Lyons.
That meant he had to ease up or hit a higher trajectory to keep the ball from going into the end zone for a touchback.
Barker’s hang time and directional punting were a big part of the Hounds’ special teams this past season, the coach said.
In fact, he kicked the ball high enough and away from returners so well that North Surry went to the seventh game of the season before a single person was able to make a return, according to Lyons.
When the Hounds’ offense was clicking, the team might go an entire half without needing a punt, he pointed out. But, when the team needed a big kick, Austin provided it.
Against South Stokes, the Hounds trailed 6-2 when the offense stalled out at midfield.
If they got good field position, the Sauras might get another score and take a commanding lead.
Instead, Barker boomed a punt about 47 yards that was marked down at the 1-yard line.
The defense forced a quick three-and-out, then got the ball back in great field position to drive down for another score on the way to a 23-20 victory.
In four years of playing high school football and eight years in coaching, Lyons said Barker is the best punter that he has ever been around.
Not only did he punt the ball cleanly, the coach said, but he did the little things well, too. He made clean catches, took a quick approach and booted the ball away before the onrushing defenders could reach him.
Lyons said this was the first season in his eight with the school that not a single punt was blocked. While much of that credit goes to the offensive line and special teams coach Jeff Stein, Barker always did his part as well.
“Austin made everyone else’s job easier,” said Donnie Jewell, who coached Barker one-on-one.
Barker was in the top 10 in the state for all classes in punting, said Lyons. The best in the state was around 42 yards per punt, and that kid played on a team that wasn’t as successful as North Surry (8-4), he said, so the punter probably got to kick away freely more often than Barker.
As a coach, Lyons felt like one of the best things about Barker was his self-motivation.
At practice, the coach could focus on the rest of the team because Barker would be off to the side doing his thing over and over.
If every player on the team had Barker’s dedication and work ethic, then the Greyhounds would have a much better football team, and there would be more of these college signings, he said.
Barker has always loved football. Growing up in the Cedar Ridge area, his school didn’t have a pee wee football team, so he joined the White Plains team under Ricky Thomas.
At Gentry Middle School, assistant coach Greg Nelson saw some potential in Barker as a kicker and punter and encouraged him to work on those skills.
About five years ago, Barker asked if he could have regulation-size goal posts at the house, said mom Sharon. It has certainly been a conversation starter.
For his first three years, Barker handled both kicking duties. Then this past year, offensive lineman Carlos Flores took over the placekicking duties.
Jewell said he started working with Barker last June. He would work with the senior one day, then send him home with some drills to work on during the week.
A lot of credit for Barker’s success goes to his family, Jewell said.
Not only have they been emotionally supportive, he said, but they get out there and help him practice. Sharon and Barker’s sister Cassie help chase down balls, and dad Junior would throw them back to Austin to make his practices more productive.
“How many balls have we chased over the years?” Sharon asked Cassie rhetorically.
Lenoir-Rhyne was very interested in Barker and wanted to see him in a workout.
Jewell said the team had some guys out there to field the punts. They were standing 40 yards away when Barker started, and they had to turn around and chase down the balls that were going over their heads.
North Surry’s coaches had to move Barker further away during pregame warmups for the same reason, Lyons interjected.
The kicker would be out on the field kicking toward the goal post. Barker would be near the goal line punting the balls back out toward midfield, he recalled.
The balls were flying across the 50 and landing amongst the other team as they were warming up.
“I’ve never had a punter who could intimidate the other team,” Lyons laughed.
Barker impressed position coach Aaron Brock and head coach Mike Houston enough that Lenoir-Rhyne offered him a partial scholarship.
Several other schools were interested in Barker, including Winston-Salem State, Catawba, Greensboro College and Methodist. However, universities typically don’t give scholarships to punters, especially as incoming freshmen.
Barker said he always knew he wanted to play football at either a Division I or II level.
The Barkers went to Hickory to tour the campus and came away impressed.
Sharon said she wanted Barker to find a college that felt right, and he did.
Austin said he liked the campus and the academic opportunities. Sharon said she liked that the school is relatively close to home.
Lenoir-Rhyne has good athletic facilities, added Jewell.
Mount Airy basketball standout Jordan Hiatt is now a student there, and Barker said he ran into her while touring.
Barker, a member of the National Honor Society and National Technical Honor Society, said he is interested in engineering, and Lenoir-Rhyne has a 3/2 program.
Take three years at this university, and then he can transfer directly into the engineering program at either N.C. State, Clemson or Vanderbilt to finish his training.
As a freshman, Barker will have the chance to compete for the starting job right away.
Pretty good for a guy who couldn’t even make his own all-conference team, joked Lyons.
Despite Barker’s many accolades, the Northwest All-Conference Team doesn’t have a spot dedicated to a punter. There is one special-teams spot, and that went to Mount Airy kicker Mitchell Brown.
With the recent punting success of local players like Barker, East Surry’s Dustin Holder and Mount Airy’s Tyler Hull (now at the University of South Carolina), Lyons would like to see punters have their own slot on the all-conference team.
Barker, a member of Young Life, said, “I would like to thank my family, all my coaches and God who has lead me to where I am today.”