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IU football: Tom Allen believes A.J. Barner can be Indiana’s best tight end ever

A.J. Barner mostly watched as Peyton Hendershot rewrote the IU record books.

A three-time All-Big Ten selection, Hendershot finished his career as the Hoosiers tight ends receptions (136) and yardage (1,479) leader.

Tom Allen watched all of that production from Hendershot, who is now with the Dallas Cowboys, as well.

And he believe his understudy has a chance to be even better.

“A.J. Barner has a chance to be the best tight end we’ve ever had at Indiana,” Allen said in May at an alumni event.  “That’s my prediction.”

Barner is preparing for his third season at Indiana out of Aurora, Ohio.

He showed glimpses of what he’s capable of while appearing in 12 games in 2021 and catching 14 passes for 162 yards, including a career-high four catches for 29 yards at Purdue.

Heading into the 2021 season, tight ends coach Kevin Wright said he had two NFL tight ends in his position room, referring to Hendershot and Barner.  And at 6-foot-6 and 251 pounds with high end speed, it’s easy to see that projection.

“He’s a special, special player,” Allen said.  “He’s a big dude, and he can run, and he’s got a tremendous level of work ethic and toughness.”

Elite tight ends can be game-changers because of the mismatches they can create in space.  Barner put his complete repertoire of skills on display last September when he scored his first career touchdown, a 76-yard play that highlighted his good hands, nimble feet, and high-end speed.

The hope with Barner is his athletic ability will be optimized in new offensive coordinator Walt Bell’s system, which emphasizes reading and reacting to the defense rather than running a pre-determined route.

“Guys talk about going to open grass,” Barner said. “You’re not set in stone with your routes. It’s more with the coverage.

“With the new offense, you can make a play with whatever the defense is doing. They have to defend us. When they do decide to defend us, you can change what you’re doing to get open, which I feel is a good opportunity for all the receivers and tight ends. We have the ability to do that. We have guys who can make plays.”

“My ability to use my size and speed to get open will be a good point of emphasis. It’s something I’m excited to do.”

Barner knows he is a long way from what Hendershot accomplished at IU.  He’s really just getting started as a featured tight end.  But he credits the former IU star for providing a blueprint for what it takes to shine in the Big Ten after watching him for two seasons.

“Learning from Peyton was a great opportunity,” Barner said.

“He is a guy that was a consistent All-Big Ten tight end. Honestly, the big thing for me was just competing with him every day. In winter workouts or in practice, I was always trying to not only learn from him but compete with him. I was trying to push myself to be a great player like he is.”

Now Barner is on top of the food chain at tight end, the clear anticipated starter this fall.

He’s seen how to succeed, his coaches believe in him, and the opportunity to shine is wide open.  Barner has the added benefit of preparing over the spring and summer with a fully healthy quarterback room.

But despite his lofty praise, Allen knows as well as anyone, records aren’t broken in the spring and summer.

“He’s young and he’s gotta prove it on game day,” Allen said.

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