MINNEAPOLIS — Members of the University of Minnesota football team were clearly prepared for the questions about the recent departure of wide receiver A.J. Barker, as several of the team’s leaders offered little Tuesday when asked about the situation that has grabbed national headlines.
“I think we were pretty surprised,” senior linebacker Mike Rallis said about Barker publicly quitting the team Sunday. “That’s between Coach and A.J. I’m not going to get too much into that.”
Barker, a redshirt junior who was not on scholarship, was the Gophers’ leading receiver this year after making just one catch in two injury-plagued seasons. He suffered an ankle injury that sidelined him for Minnesota’s last three games. Unhappy with how second-year coach Jerry Kill has handled his injury and his lack of a scholarship, Barker took to Twitter and a 4,000-word blog post on Tumblr to cite his reasons for quitting.
Barker’s public criticism of Kill and the way he went about quitting the team has put the Gophers in the spotlight — for unwanted reasons. Minnesota would much rather have people talk about how this team is bowl eligible for the first time since 2009. Instead, Barker continues to be the topic of discussion two days after his decision went public.
“Obviously, we’d rather have it for something positive,” Rallis said. “That’s all we’ll try to do is try to turn the spotlight into a positive. Hopefully we can get that bowl invite to Jacksonville (for the Gator Bowl) because that would be a great story.”
Tuesday was the first time since Barker’s departure that Gophers players addressed the media. While the players offered little insight to what transpired between Barker and Kill, they all seemed surprised to see Barker leave the team with two games remaining in the season.
“I had no idea, to be honest,” said senior wide receiver MarQueis Gray. “We were just in the locker room the week before talking. He always came to meetings. But to know how it happened, it’s just something that’s going to affect us all. That’s between Coach Kill and A.J. I wish A.J. the best.”
Kill, who regularly meets with the media every Tuesday, called an impromptu press conference Monday to address the Barker situation. Even so, he couldn’t avoid being asked about the issue one day later.
“Players leave programs. Things happen. I said publicly I feel bad about it, I really do. But I’m responsible for 115 kids, and I’ve got to put my focus on those kids,” Kill said Tuesday. “I said, ‘We’re moving forward. You know Coach. You know who I am.’ They’ve been great. All those seniors, they want to concentrate on playing and playing football and concentrate on the guys that are here. It’s a great group of kids. They’ve been great to me.”
Barker leaves the team with a team-high 30 catches for 577 yards and seven touchdowns. He sprained his ankle making a touchdown catch in the first half of Minnesota’s win against Purdue on Oct. 27 and missed subsequent games against Michigan, Illinois and Nebraska.
As Minnesota prepares to host Michigan State this Saturday and play in a bowl game after that, the Gophers must figure out a way to replace Barker’s production.
“He was one of our best guys. He was able to stretch the field and make plays for us,” Gray said. “That’s one of the jobs we’re going to have to have someone fill up this week, especially going against Michigan State.”
Part of Barker’s blog post included accusations about how Kill handled situations off the field. Barker said he was the victim of “psychological abuse and manipulation” from Kill. The breaking point for Barker, he said in his letter, came last Thursday. According to Kill, he had to intervene in an argument between Barker and one of the team’s athletic trainers that had escalated to the point where it was disrupting practice. Barker described the situation as a 20-minute tirade by Kill.
Getting chewed out by a coach is certainly part of the game of football, said Gray, who added every player endures being yelled at by coaches.
“You play for any coach, if you’re doing something bad or doing something that’s not going to benefit yourself or the team, any coach is going to let you know about it,” Gray said. “It’s how you handle yourself. Just be prepared for it. You’ve got to be strong-hearted about it.”