Barton plays lead role for Terps' defensive cast Linebacker is thriving despite broken finger

October 25, 1997|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK -- Eric Barton can whip you with one hand behind his back.

Actually, Barton has been tied down by a broken finger on his right hand, which has only served to magnify the Maryland middle linebacker's talent. Despite playing the last two games in a cumbersome cast, Barton has managed to maintain his pace as the second-leading tackler in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Barton hopes that today's homecoming game against Clemson at Byrd Stadium (3: 30 p.m., chs. 2, 7) also will be his last with the cast. He had 10 solo tackles and four assists against Wake Forest last week, and if he's making it look easy, it isn't.

"At first, I thought having a cast on wasn't going to matter, but I found out otherwise," Barton said. "You get to the point real soon where you need to grab a guy and you can't. It's a little frustrating, but I'd rather be struggling than sitting on the bench."

It's a vantage point the junior from Alexandria, Va., has rarely seen at Maryland.

Barton, 6 feet 3 and 235 pounds, was the only first-year freshman to play for the Terps in 1995. He reported that August at a bloated 247 pounds, and his explanation that the extra pounds were baby fat carried some weight. His game six debut came eight days after his 18th birthday.

Barton was still a teen-ager when this season began, and Ron Vanderlinden was engaged by his potential from his first glance at Maryland film. The first-year coach thought that the Terps had operated in the past under a star-system, but he nonetheless singled out Barton, and said that the junior signal-caller could develop into one of the nation's best.

"He's got the size, the speed and the explosion to be a really good linebacker," Vanderlinden said. "He loves the game of football. In fact, I'm not sure he cares as much about anything in his life as much as he does football."

Vanderlinden, linebacker coach Chris Cosh and Mel Foels, Barton's coach the last two years, all tutored All-American linebackers, from Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald to Illinois' Kevin Hardy to North Carolina's Lawrence Taylor. All three told Barton to rely more on fundamentals and less on his considerable talent.

"Eric wants to do 30 percent of this on his own," Vanderlinden said. "He wants to throw caution to the wind, and just go find the football. Chris [Cosh] has taught him to be more of a student of the game."

Thomas and Christine Barton stopped by a recent practice to inquire about one of their son's test grades with which they were dissatisfied, but Eric apparently studies enough football. In lieu of Game 3 of the World Series Tuesday night, he watched video of Clemson-Florida State. On Wednesday, it was Clemson-Georgia Tech. Last night, Clemson-Appalachian State.

"Friends, girls are always asking me why I would want to watch something so boring," Barton said. "I'm just looking for some clues that I can use in a game, something that's going to make me better. You sacrifice a lot for this game. Outside of my family, it's the biggest part of my life."

It hasn't always been the most fulfilling.

A 3-7 record in his senior season was the high-water mark of his prep career at Edison High. He canceled visits to more stable college programs for the chance to play immediately at Maryland. The Terps were 6-5 in his freshman year, but he played in only one of the victories.

He had 106 tackles last year, when the Terps slipped to 5-6. No one in the ACC has more than his 86 tackles, but Maryland is

limping along at 2-5, and since five of the 10 semifinalists for the Butkus Award hail from the conference, Barton knows not to wait up for any all-star notice.

"Those guys [the ACC's Butkus semifinalists] are on great defenses, great teams," Barton said. "Sometimes I feel that no matter what I do, they would be on there instead of me, but it doesn't matter. What am I going to do?"

Once he sheds that cast, even more than he is now.

Spoils to the victor

The Atlantic Coast Conference has produced five of the 10 semifinalists for the Butkus Award, which is given annually to college football's best linebacker. None of the five ranks among the conference's top five tacklers, linebackers all.

ACC tackle leaders

Name School Avg.

Wali Rainer Virginia 13.2

Eric Barton Md. 12.3

Chike Egbuniwe Duke 12.1

Morocco Brown N.C. St. 12.0

Keith Brooking G. Tech 11.8

ACC's Butkus semifinalists

Name School Avg.

Kivuusama Mays N.C. 11.7

Anthony Simmons Clem. 11.0

Sam Cowart Fla. St. 10.5

Brian Simmons N.C. 10.5

Daryl Bush Fla. St. 8.6

Pub Date: 10/25/97

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