There might have been a few people with stunned and impressed expressions at TCF Bank Stadium when A.J. Barker reeled in his third touchdown of the first half in Saturday's 28-23 victory over Western Michigan.
But Barker wasn't one of them.
"I'm probably one of the crazy people out there that did believe I could do that," said Barker, who joined the Gophers program in 2009 as a walk-on. "The quarterback just makes the reads, and they found me today."
Three times, that is, and via two quarterbacks. MarQueis Gray tossed Barker his first score, a 10-yard slant to give the Gophers their first lead of the game. Then, after Gray left the game with an ankle sprain, backup Max Shortell sent two more end zone passes his way, the first a 53-yard haul down the right sideline. Barker finished with five catches for 101 yards and those three TDs.
"A.J. has been nice since I've been here," running back Donnell Kirkwood said. "He's healthy, and we all knew what he could do if he was healthy."
But it was a performance that's been a long time coming for the redshirt junior, who after sitting out a season had minimal playing time and impact in each of the past two years. To add to the struggles, Barker -- a St. Paul native who went to DeLaSalle High School -- was plagued by hamstring injuries throughout last year.
A very raw receiving corps that was tagged as a potential weakness for the Gophers has proven, in the past three games, that it shouldn't be overlooked or underappreciated. Of course, Barker has believed he could help all along.
"I hadn't been given the opportunity to show what I can do in games, and I was just waiting for that," the 6-1, 191-pound Barker said. "Looking back on it, I think it turned out to be a positive. It allowed the chip on my shoulder to continue to grow, and I think it will keep growing."
Barker, also the team's main punt returner, had already made an impression this season -- against UNLV, he led the team with 101 receiving yards and last week had a 19-yard touchdown against New Hampshire. But he still might have caught the Western Michigan defense off guard on Saturday. After Devin Crawford-Tufts left early with an undisclosed injury, Barker emerged as the main target. And with Shortell at the helm, he got plenty of chances.
In Shortell's first series, he led a six-play drive for a touchdown that included three passes, the last of which was a 9-yard pass to a heavily covered Barker, who pulled away from his defender, turned and made the grab.
"Right now, with A.J. and all our receivers, they're running pretty good routes," coach Jerry Kill said. "That's a tremendously young crew that we're playing with right now and when [Crawford-Tufts] got hurt ... the next guy goes in. We're not real deep anyway. It's really, really good for us that A.J.'s doing so well."