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November 7, 2005

LA's next big thing

LAKEWOOD, Calif. - When asked to describe the way his star running back John Barnett Jr. played, Lakewood coach Mike Christensen hesitated for a few seconds. He didn't want to drop the name, but he couldn't think of another way to portray the 5-foot-10, 180-pound junior.

"The video doesn't do him justice," Christensen said. "There will be things that when you see him live - and I hate to compare him to this - make you think Reggie Bush. He's that type of player. He does all those things, and is very similar to what he can do.

"He's so versatile. He does so many different things well. He's a great receiver, but he's a dynamic tailback. He does a great job for us at corner, and he's a phenomenal kick returner. He can do it all, and I have little doubt by the time he's a senior he will be one of the most heavily recruited players in California and in the nation."

When Christensen said Barnett is dynamic at a number of different spots he's not stretching the truth one bit.

The first game of the season for the Lancers he had four tackles and an interception against Anaheim Servite, and he then had 94 yards receiving against and 95 yards of kickoff returns against Mayfair in week two. Against Jordan he had three kickoff returns for 143 yards, including an 84-yard touchdown turn. Then in the last three weeks, he's averaged more than 124 yards rushing, including a 175-yard outburst against Compton this past Friday night.

"Every time he gets the ball you're holding your breath if you're the other side," Christensen said. "He's done it over and over all season long.

"There is a challenge for us as coaches every week - where do we need him tonight at. We need him on offense? We need him on defense? Where are we going to have to focus with him? It's a good problem to have."

Barnett is still maturing as a player and continues to make progress each and every time he steps on the field. Early in the season he wasn't the team's No. 1 offensive weapon, but as the season moved on he's become more of a focal point as he's gotten more comfortable with the offense and his ability.

"It's a great situation for him," Christensen said. "Our running back is one of the best tailbacks in the state. It's hard for teams to focus on John when they have to focus on him, and we have another good receiver on the outside. They can't just put everything on John. It's allowed him to do all these things.

"What's scary you kind of think what his upside is and what he can be. Just athletically he does things you can't teach. One of those kids that fast, but he doesn't look fast. He's so smooth."

Barnett said football is in his blood, so it's no big surprise that he's turned out this way. His father played football at Oregon Tech and he is related to both NFL receivers Fred Barnett and Tim Barnett.

"My cousin Fred Barnett, he played for the Eagles," Barnett said. "And Tim Barnett, he plays from the Kansas City Chiefs. I work out with my cousin in the off-season. I go out to Kansas City in the off-season to train with him. They just told me to keep working hard. Don't be a follower, be a leader."

Barnett looks to his father, John Barnett Sr., though, for leadership and guidance. It was his father pushing him when he was younger that gave him a strong work ethic.

"He gets on my case all the time," Barnett said about his dad. "He makes sure I have my grades. Yeah, it's a good thing. I need somebody like that in my life. He went to Oregon Tech and played running back there. He played for the USFL, so he knows what it takes to get to the next level.

"On the weekends, he forced me to go to the high school and run the bleachers and run the mile in a certain time. He just pushes me all the time, doing little drills. I didn't like it at first, but now I go and do it on my own without him telling me what to do. I see what could happen if you work hard, and now that I see that I'm going to be recruited, all the hard work he made me do early on is paying off."

The light bulb is indeed starting to turn on.

"He's starting to understand that he has speed that you don't normally see," his coach said. "He outruns angles. You look at him and go 'geez, this guy is going to get him.' There was a play last week where it was a toss and it was a good play. The safety was coming over, and I said 'ok, he's going to get him.' He just turned the jets on and blew that angle up and took it to the house. I was like wow.

"You could see he has that extra burst when he needs it. He does it effortlessly and he's fluid."

But things weren't always this easy for him. He played his freshman season at Long Beach Milliken, and when he moved with his father to Lakewood the adjustment took a while to take. He went from a program that didn't have much success and pressure to win to a program that always expects success and demands excellence from its players every day of the year.

"When he was a ninth grader at Milliken, he almost single-handedly beat our freshman team," Christensen said. "We were fortunate after that season, for whatever reason, his dad decided to move into this area and he decided to come here.

"There was an adjustment period for him, because he came into a really structured environment. We're really big on accountability, and he was coming from something that wasn't maybe quite the same as what we have. So he had an adjustment period where he had to kind of find himself.

"As a sophomore he was awesome on the JV level. You could see his ability. He was the best guy on the field. And it's been fortunate that we've been able to bring him along slow. Now that he's starting to get it, he might end up being one of the best that we've ever had."

Hearing Christensen say that Barnett could be one of his best ever means a lot. Last season, Lakewood had three players sign Division I scholarships, including four-star and Rivals100 prospects Adrian McCovy (Arizona) and Luthur Brown (USC.)

"We had a bunch of guys last year go out, and it was good for our younger guys like John, because they saw what you have to do," Christensen said.

"You have to get the test score, you have to take these classes and so he's continued to do his part as far as that. And anything that he might have screwed up on before, he went back this summer and took. So he's going to be on schedule to do what he has to do. That's one thing we're going to make sure of. His dad will make sure of it, too."

Barnett said he wants to be a lawyer when he's done with football. And there are hardly any arguments he loses on the field either through his play or through his ability to let opponents know he just whipped them.

"I talk on the field all the time - all the time, all the time, all the time," Barnett said with a smile. "I tell them to try harder or pick up their speed. I get people trying to talk back all the time, but they can't catch me. I like the pressure, it makes me work harder. I just know I want to get it. I don't want something to stop me."

And little has this season.

In college, his coach said he expects whatever team is lucky enough to land him to use him a number of different ways like, gulp, Reggie Bush.

"I don't know if a team can take him and not play him on offense," Christensen said.

"There is no doubt in my mind he could be a defensive back, he can do that. I just think he's going to impact the game more on the offensive side of the ball and as a kick returner. He can score on any touch. I think if you're an offensive team, you have to give that guy his touches so he can do his own thing.

"It doesn't matter where it's at - running back, receiver, punt or kick returner. He is too dynamic not to have the ball in his hands."

Speaking of college since Barnett has burst onto the scene this season his name is just now getting out to the college coaches. He's only received mail from Arizona, but he has dreamed for a long time of playing for the Cal Bears.

"I'm a California boy all my life," said Barnett, who does now have a 2.5 grade-point average. "I grew up a fan of Cal-Berkley. I wanted to be a Bear. That's my favorite school. That's my dream school. I would be interested in the Pac 10, but Cal is my No. 1 choice."

But maybe, just maybe, he would follow in the footsteps of the player his coach described him as.

"He is a guy by the time he's a senior, I have no doubt everybody will compare him to Reggie Bush," Christensen said. "He's worked hard and he's continuing to learn the game. He's a special kid, and if he stays on track he'll have special things come his way."

Just like Reggie Bush.


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