Story and Photo by Trey Martin
It’s an unusually cold December night in Irmo, South Carolina. Temperatures stay in the 20’s as the bright lights shine down on the field at Dutch Fork Stadium. Not just any lights, Friday Night Lights, showcasing the South Carolina 5A Lower State Championship. On the field are the two best teams in the state, the undefeated Dutch Fork Silver Foxes, and the explosive Fort Dorchester Patriots.
Early on, the fans on both sides sit still on the cold stadium bleachers. The game had seen a few scoring drives to go along with a handful of turnovers, but not enough to keep either fan base warm. Then, in the third quarter, Dutch Fork senior quarterback Reese Nichols rifles a pass down the middle, finding a streaking Bobby Irby, who takes the pass 70 yards for the touchdown. After crossing the goal line, the humble Irby flips the ball to the referee and jogs back to the sideline, where is met by ecstatic teammates and coaches, including wide receivers coach Jason Barnes.
Barnes, a native of Charlotte, North Carolina, is used to this result. A highly rated receiver out of Independence High School, Barnes was a product of offensive mastermind and current Dutch Fork head coach Tom Knotts himself, catching 84 passes for 1,413 yards and 14 touchdowns during his senior year of high school.
“[Tom Knotts] taught me everything. As far as holding myself accountable and looking at the man in the mirror, you can’t depend on nobody else to make the play, it’s on you. Just a winning mentality, starting in the weight room, to the field, to practice every day, just making every rep count,” Barnes said. “Everything he’s about he brings to the team, and he makes you want to work hard every day, and he has little tactics to bring out the best in you and everyone around you.”
Winning was the expectation at Independence, who won the State Championship every year while Barnes was in high school during a streak where the Patriots won 109 straight games and six State Championships.
“Coach Knotts, he was a big time perfectionist, just doing things the right way, his way. He was the type of guy where if you think you’re going to come in and do it your way, you won’t be playing for Independence very long,” Barnes said. “He’s a winner, a hard nosed coach, so if you want to be great and if you want to win, then that’s the coach you want to play for.”
After a successful high school career, Barnes turned down an offer from in-state powerhouse North Carolina to play for Steve Spurrier and the South Carolina Gamecocks. Barnes joined a recruiting class that featured players such as Cliff Matthews, Chris Culliver, Stephen Garcia, Travian Robertson, and Melvin Ingram. The class was rated seventh best in the country by 24/7 Sports, fourth best in the Southeastern Conference.
“We all became one, and we said we were going to change the tradition of the program. We were all winners, and that mentality changed the program around from that day on,” Barnes said.
After a plethora of wins in high school, Barnes stepped into an unfamiliar situation at South Carolina. The Gamecocks were coming off an eight win season in 2006, but struggled to improve in the following years. After starting off 6-1 in 2007 and being ranked as high as no. 6 in the AP poll, the Gamecocks dropped their final five games, finishing 6-6 and missing a bowl game.
“When I first got to Carolina, we were terrible. My first year we didn’t even make it to a bowl game. That was very different for me coming from Independence, being used to winning,” Barnes said. “I remember my first game playing was at LSU, it was raining and on CBS, a 3:30 game, and it was my first game starting, and we lost that game. I knew I was surrounded by a bunch of losers because after the game I was in the locker room and I was crying. I wanted to win that bad, and everyone else was laughing and playing and stuff and I looked around like ‘what’s wrong?’ I had never been around guys like that.”
After injuring his foot against LSU, Barnes was granted a medical redshirt in 2007.
The Gamecocks struggles continued in the following seasons. The team lacked identity, but showed glimpses of improvements here and there, like in wins against no. 4 Ole Miss and no. 15 Clemson in 2009.
Barnes continued to improve at South Carolina. His best game as a Gamecock came at Ole Miss in 2008, where he caught seven passes for 76 yards and two touchdowns. He entered his junior campaign in 2010 with 54 receptions and 667 yards.
After years of building, the Gamecocks finally hit their stride in 2010. Barnes was a regular in the offensive rotation alongside players like Stephen Garcia, Marcus Lattimore, Alshon Jeffery, and Tori Gurley. The dream that Barnes and his fellow recruits had of changing the program came on October 9, 2010, when South Carolina upset the no. 1 ranked Alabama Crimson Tide 35-21.
“That was one of the best games ever, one of the best feelings ever. They were number one in the country, had Trent Richardson, Mark Ingram, a whole bunch of big time first round draft picks, and we did too, but we were still underrated,” Barnes said. “We were not projected to win that game, but they came to Williams-Brice, and we tore ‘em up. We took care of business and won in Williams-Brice for our crowd.”
Barnes closed out his college career by helping lead the Gamecocks to their first SEC East Championship and their first 11-win season in 2011. He tallied 64 career receptions for 778 yards, and also landed a spot on the SEC Academic Honor Roll. After his college career, Barnes set his sights on the NFL.
After going undrafted, Barnes was picked up by the San Diego Chargers as a free agent, where he participated in training camp. His dream of playing in the NFL was cut short by a foot injury.
“I played for the Chargers for a year and tore my achilles and got released from them in the offseason,” Barnes said.
Barnes’ agent advised him to play in Canada, where he could work on his game and have a shot at getting back in the league, but after a few seasons, he hung up his cleats for good. Still passionate for the game, the first thing Barnes did was go to his high school coach.
“He told me I had to stay in Canada for a little bit to get back to a NFL roster, but that didn’t work out. I came home, called up Coach Knotts, he told me he needed a receivers coach, and it just worked out perfectly,” Barnes said.
Barnes became the wide receivers coach at Dutch Fork in 2014, where he helped the Foxes get to a third straight State Championship appearance in a campaign that included a thrilling 58-53 defeat to Kyler Murray and the no. 1 ranked Allen Eagles in Texas.
As the years go by, the receiving corps continue to improve at Dutch Fork. In 2016, the Foxes receivers included big names Bobby Irby, Austin Connor, and Ward Hacklen, who led the team to their first undefeated season and second State Championship in the program’s history. Barnes has high expectations for his future groups.
“My receivers next year will be the first receiving corps that I have been with for four years. They know me the best out of all the receivers that have come through here and have been with me the longest, so I expect them to be the best receiving corps that we have had,” Barnes said.
While his career in pads may be through, Barnes has found a passion in teaching the game to younger players.
“I’ve always been one to teach. Even when I was on the field, even as a senior in high school or in college, I always took the younger guys under my wing and taught them the way and the playbooks. I do the same thing out here,” Barnes said.
Being just 27 years old, Barnes can connect with his players in a way his elders can’t.
“I’m not much older than the guys, so they look at me more as a big brother, so I take them under my wing and teach them everything,” Barnes said.
After facing adversity throughout his career, Jason Barnes continues to have an influence on the game he loves under his former high school coach. The work ethic Barnes learned under Knotts in high school is still with him today, and he hopes to continue to teach that to his future players.
“At Independence, we would go undefeated every year and win a state championship, but then as soon as that season was over, it was about repeating. I want to add that to the mindset of all the players coming back at Dutch Fork. Repeating is about taking everything you did last year and doing a little bit more the next year. We showed we can do it once, but anyone can do it once,” Barnes said. “It starts right now, and it depends on how bad everyone wants it, and I want to put that mindset into everyone, because we are here to repeat. I’m not happy with one year, I want more, and I hope everyone else does too.”