Darius Barnes has been one of the most surprising members of Southern Miss' football team, transitioning from a backup defensive lineman fighting for playing time to starter at one of the most key positions on the field. He backed up at left tackle in 2009 and graduated into the position for 2010, meaning he should be one of four new starters on the Golden Eagles' line when its opener at South Carolina kicks off tonight.
It's a tough chore, learning a new position and getting a baptism on national television where he wants to play well but knows his team is an underdog. It would be an apprehensive situation no matter who the other team was.
But it's the Gamecocks, which means Barnes' first night as a starter will come with a heavy burden -- USC defensive end Cliff Matthews.
On the watch lists for several national awards and a consensus preseason first-team All-SEC selection, Matthews begins his senior year at 7:30 p.m. today. While Matthews can play each end of the line, it seems logical to think that he will line up on the right, where he can bring his pass-rushing ability around left tackle and hope to get to quarterback Austin Davis.
Barnes is in the way. He'll see quickly if he can handle a 6-foot-4, mean, nasty, guided missile of a defender who never says one word about how he's going to work his opponent into the ground -- he just does it.
"We have all the talk about the O-line is not going to live up to the hype like it did last year," Barnes told The Hattiesburg (Miss.) American this summer. "It's a big role, but I feel I can fill it. I feel like I'm the guy they trust to go out there and do it. I'll go out there and do it."
He needs to, if the Golden Eagles are going to stick around.
Matthews, the captain of the defense, will be controlling his crew in the absence of co-leader Shaq Wilson, who is out with a hamstring pull. With no more Eric Norwood to reply on for finding the ball or sacking the quarterback, Matthews will be the guy.
He has 17.5 career tackles for loss and 10 sacks. He wants to make that more, although good luck getting him to say it.
"I expect us to not beat ourselves this year," Matthews said in the preseason. "I expect us to give everything we've got and play our heart out in each game, and to practice hard and get better each week."
USM can challenge USC -- coach Steve Spurrier has preached of the Golden Eagles' recent history all week. That's something that USC wants and has had a taste of, but not in the numbers of the Eagles.
This year has the potential to really take the Gamecocks' program forward. Spurrier knows it, as does his team. For a senior like Matthews, it's his last chance. He'll be ready to explode on the first defensive snap.
If Barnes is in the way, he has to find a way to defuse the ticking clock.