Prior to the start of the Philadelphia Eagles' preseason opener against the Indianapolis Colts, running back and kick returner Kenjon Barner was preparing for the game by catching punts from Eagles punter Donnie Jones. That is, until veteran return man Darren Sproles pulled Barner aside.
"I was catching punts from Donnie and [Sproles] told me, ‘No, you go over there and watch [Colts punter Pat McAfee] punt. You watch and see what he does,'" Barner said. "I went over there, I sat and watched. [Sproles] asked me questions like ‘Which way is the ball coming down when it’s on its descent? Is it going to the right or left? Are you watching it off his foot?’
"I had a long conversation with Sproles during pregame and he told me "[McAfee] is going to give you plenty of opportunities; he’s going to outkick his coverage."
And sure enough, McAfee let a punt go a little too far out in front of the Colts' special teamers. And that extra space was all it took: Barner made the first man miss, which gave the Eagles' special teams unit enough time to set up blocks for Barner. From there, the former Oregon Duck took the punt 92 yards for a touchdown.
It's the moments like these - the ones before a game and away from the cameras, between the seasoned vet and the young player trying to find his way in the league - that have proven to be among the most important of Barner's young career.
"Most important for me is being up under Sproles," Barner said after the Eagles' 36-10 win over the Colts on Sunday. "I’ll stay in his back pocket. Wherever you see Sproles, you’re going to see me. Whatever Sproles is doing, I’m doing.
"I’ve been able to have conversations with him about punt returns, kick returns, all these different things that he’s taught me a lot. I credit a lot of where I am today to him. Because I’ve been able to sit under an 11-year vet and learn from him; learn from the mistakes that he’s made over the length of his career that he’s taught me. Sproles has meant a great deal for where I am right now."
Barner joined the Eagles at the tail end of the 2014 preseason, and was hurt in the last game of the preseason. So while Barner didn't see the field last year, as a member of the practice squad he did spend plenty of time around Sproles, who was named to the Pro Bowl and was a second team All-Pro return man last season.
That said, it did take Barner some time before he realized just how valuable a role model like Sproles could be.
"I didn’t understand that as a rookie, getting with the older guys and learning from them," Barner said. "But I understand that now. And when you have a guy who’s been in this league 11 years, he has a lot of knowledge and a lot of wisdom that he can pass on to you. Your job is to put yourself in a position to receive that knowledge and go out and do what you can."
Through one preseason game, it certainly seems like Barner has been able to put a season's worth of tutelage to good use. The next step will be continuing to make those kinds of plays at both running back and returner. And after a season on the practice squad, making the final roster is the goal.
"You don’t get to the NFL and want to sit down and watch other guys play, you want to get out there and play," Barner said. "So it puts a chip on your shoulder. But it also enabled me to learn under Sproles, learn under [LeSean] McCoy, learn under those guys. They taught me a lot. They’ve helped me develop much more as a football player and take my game to another level."
Ultimately it will be up to Barner to make enough plays to earn a spot on the roster. But thanks to some insight from one of the league's best return men, Barner may be able to take the next step and make the club.