NIU football: Up 15 pounds, Grayson Barnes looking to make full-time impact at tight end

Senior spent a lot of time split out last season, will see increased use as run-blocker this year

Northern Illinois University Grayson Barnes, left, attempts to catch the ball but was unsuccessful while being defended by Jake Gassaway during practice on Saturday March 30, 2024, held at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb.

DeKALB – Last year Grayson Barnes was on the Northern Illinois University depth chart at wide receiver, but said he was more of a tight end that spent time in the slot or attached off tackle.

Although still listed as a wide receiver, Barnes has put on 15 pounds and figures to be much more involved in run-blocking this year.

“He’s definitely a chess piece, a guy we can put in a variety of spots,” NIU coach Thomas Hammock said. “Very smart, very detailed, and that’s very important for the chemistry with the quarterback. And he’s a guy that we certainly need to make sure we game plan for him. We’ve put him in a lot of spots in practice to see how far we can stretch him and the things he’s capable of.”

Barnes is part of a very deep group of pass catchers returning for the Huskies ahead of the 2024 season. After a brief stint in the transfer portal, leading receiver Trayvon Rudolph is back after making more than twice as many catches as any other Huskie. He had 51 catches for 531 yards and two touchdowns.

Barnes was third on the team with 23 catches for 422 yards and five touchdowns. He surged toward the end of the season and became a favorite target of Rocky Lombardi, who graduated after three years with NIU.

“It’s kind of execution, doing the little things right,” Barnes said after a practice earlier this month. “Stuff that doesn’t really take talent that we have – staying onside, not jumping offsides, lining up correctly. Little stuff like that, that’s all.”

Hammock said he’s in no rush to name a starter at quarterback, although Ethan Hampton has been the first quarterback on the field taking snaps in first-team drills. Arkansas-Pine Bluff transfer Jalen Macon has also seen a lot of snaps during spring practices so far, as has Marengo grad Josh Holst. Hammock said three quarterbacks have separated themselves from the group, although did not say which three. Hampton, Holst and Macon have taken a majority of full-team snaps so far.

Barnes has emerged as a favorite target of Hampton in drills. On Tuesday, he turned a short pass from Hampton into about a 15-yard gain.

Barnes said it really doesn’t matter who is under center.

“A lot of it is kind of the same right now,” Barnes said. “Ethan has stepped up into a big role and done a really good job with it. The new guys coming in are doing a great job as well. It’s all still the same. It’s still a ball spinning in the air.”

He wasn’t the only pass catcher with that outlook. Redshirt sophomore Jalen Johnson said the receivers are focused on making sure to improve from last season.

“You’re still just trying to make plays,” Johnson said. “We’re really supportive of all our quarterbacks. We can’t wait to see who’s on the field. But as a receiver room, whoever the quarterback is, it’s our job is to catch that ball and benefit the team.”

Johnson’s 17 catches last season are fourth-most among the returning players. Among the top five in catches last year, only Kasper Rutkiewicz is no longer with the team.

Johnson, a Metea Valley grad, missed all of 2022 with an injury. He said the goal for this year is to continue to stay healthy and improve on how he performed last year.

“I don’t think last year was my best year,” Johnson said. “I showed some signs, but I think I could have helped the team a lot more. So, I’ve just focused on the small things in the offseason, taking care of my body, working on my hands, understanding reading defenses to really benefit the team.”

Hammock said he likes how Johnson has come along. With how deep the room is, he said you either improve or get left behind.

“I think he sees that, he understands that, and so he’s got to work every day to earn his reps,” Hammock said. “I’m pleased with how he’s competed.”

As a group, Hammock said getting yards after the catch has been the main goal for the receivers this year.

“You’ve got guys that can make plays with the ball in their hand,” Hammock said. “That’s a big part of being able to be better in the passing game. Run after catch is huge when you can throw certain passes and a guy can make a guy miss and run down the field. That makes you a more explosive offense.”

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