Aurora High School football coach Bob Mihalik describes AJ Barner as the type of physical, yet mindful, player who will “help a kid off the ground after he just beat the crap out of him” with a block.
During a game in Barner’s senior year at Aurora, he did exactly that.
Barner, who was squatting in a three-point position as a tight end, had an edge rusher staring down his right shoulder. When the ball was snapped, Barner exploded forward at the defender, using his arms to pop his opponent, sending the kid’s arms flailing in the air. After another shove, the defender was sitting on the turf.
Then, Barner reached out his hand to help him up.
“(He) just did everything the right way,” Mihalik said of Barner.
Barner, now a redshirt sophomore tight end at IU, showed off some of that physicality during the Hoosiers’ 56-14 win over Idaho on Saturday. He hauled in a 76-yard touchdown catch — the first touchdown of his career — and blocked a punt, contributing to Indiana’s dominant special teams performance and giving a glimpse of his potential. As a result, he was named one of IU's special teams' players of the game.
But for the first two seasons of his high school career, Barner didn’t play tight end. He was tall and skinny, measuring maybe 6-foot-2 and weighing 180 pounds, but was a hard-nosed linebacker and a smashmouth quarterback.
As a junior, Mihalik and the coaching staff figured they’d put Barner at tight end because “he loves to hit,” Mihalik said. After bulking up in the weight room and growing a few inches, Barner became a force on the line. During a run play, Barner drove his man back five yards and pushed him into another defender, causing them both to topple over like bowling pins. On a goal-line play, Barner nearly blocked a defender into a referee, who was standing near the back of the endzone.
“He’s big, he’s fast, he's athletic,” Mihalik said. “And he’s an aggressive kid who just wants to get involved in every play that he can.”
As a senior, Barner was named the 2019 Northeast Ohio Division III Defensive Player of the Year after tallying 124 tackles on a team that went to the state semifinals. At tight end, in an offensive system that didn’t utilize that position much in the passing game, Barner had just 15 catches for 123 yards.
What made Barner even more valuable, Mihalik said, was his personality. Teachers frequently raved about having him in class. He acted like a “big brother” to the younger and practice squad players, Mihalik said, where he’d help them up after knocking them to the ground. It has continued at IU, where Barner was named the Scholar-Athlete of the Month this August.
“(He’s) the kind of kid that you’d let date your daughter,” Mihalik said.
Most college coaches recruited Barner to play defense, including Ohio University where he originally committed. And Barner originally wanted to play on defense too. But IU offensive coordinator Nick Sheridan was steadfast in wanting Barner to play tight end, telling him that his frame and skills would translate to tight end at the next level. The relationship ended up paying off for Indiana after Barner decommitted from Ohio and pledged to attend IU.
“Coach Sheridan started recruiting me when not many big schools were talking to me,” Barner said. “That was big for me because I didn’t want to go somewhere where I was someone’s afterthought.”
After redshirting his freshman season, Barner played in all eight games last year, mostly on special teams, where he made four tackles. It gave him time, though, to learn the intricacies of the position, like hand placement and run blocking, from All-Big Ten tight end Peyton Hendershot and veteran Matt Bjorson.
“Just being able to ask those guys: what do I do on this play?” Barner said. “How can I improve?”
His development showed on Saturday, where, during the fourth quarter, Barner glided across the middle of the field, hauling in a pass from Jack Tuttle near the IU logo. An Idaho defender lunged at Barner’s legs, but Barner put his foot in the ground and spun away, taking it into the endzone.
— Indiana On BTN (@IndianaOnBTN) September 12, 2021
But he wasn't afforded a rest, though, as he blocked for the extra point and then made a tackle on the kickoff the very next play.
“Running down on a kickoff, that’s awesome for me,” Barner said. “Making plays, as long as I can help the team.”
A few minutes later, on an Idaho punt, Barner came flying through the left side of the line and dived forward, full-extension, like Superman. He tipped the ball as it careened sideways.
“It was really a reflection of the total football player that he is,” IU tight ends coach Kevin Wright said.
How does one celebrate his first career TD?
By blocking a punt, moments later, of course.@_ajbarner_ // @IndianaFootball pic.twitter.com/TgbvPRdhvc
— Indiana On BTN (@IndianaOnBTN) September 12, 2021
It still remains to be seen how many targets Barner will get this season, given he’s behind Hendershot and Bjorson on the depth chart. But both are seniors and figure to move on from Indiana after this season, opening an opportunity for Barner. Now standing 6-foot-6 and weighing 245 pounds at less than 12 percent body fat, Barner has the potential to be Indiana’s next dynamic tight end and, Wright believes — and has a chance to eventually make it to the NFL.
“He’s got good ball skills, he’s physical,” Wright said. “If you put that component together with the ability to play special teams, that’s what people are looking for.”