TROY – Kaleb Barker couldn’t let it go.
Troy’s senior quarterback saw receiver Sam Letton break open in the end zone on the Trojans’ first drive of Saturday night’s 43-14 victory over Campbell.
His throw was too far in front and too low for Letton to grab. The third-down incompletion turned into Tyler Sumpter’s 27-yard field goal on the next play.
“That’s going to eat me up,” Barker said after the game, still thinking about the missed opportunity to Letton. “He’s a good guy. He’s not holding it over my head.”
It was a blip on an otherwise fine night for Barker, but that’s absolutely who he is. He’s his own worst critic, he is intensely driven to do things the right way and he’s hypercompetitive.
Barker led an offense that gained 527 yards Saturday night. He threw touchdown passes of 61 yards – a career high for him to a wide-open Reggie Todd – and 10 yards to Luke Whittemore. He completed 18 passes in 29 attempts for 282 yards.
“I think it should have been more. That’s kind of always how I’ll be,” Barker said when reminded of his numbers. “I am super thankful, though. I mean, I was pretty emotional coming over to Trojan Walk, feeling like I’m back and it’s time to go. But I’m happy that we got the win.”
The senior sounded surprised that his emotions were so high before the game. But anyone vaguely familiar with his story understands what it means for Barker to be out there.
He won the starting job last season at the end of an epic competition with Sawyer Smith. He got better and better as the first half of last season unfolded. But in the sixth game he suffered a torn ACL – the third of his career – and was lost for the season.
Another grueling rehab was followed by another competition this spring with Smith, who went 5-2 as Troy’s starting quarterback after Barker went down. Smith is now a graduate transfer at Kentucky.
Barker’s effort – and the opportunity this season he’s earned for himself – hit him hard as the Trojans got on a bus to assemble for the Trojan Walk Saturday afternoon.
“Couple tears before the game on the bus ride over,” Barker said. “… You know, it’s hard for me to describe that to y’all or explain that to y’all because it’s different for an athlete that goes down with that type of injury. It’s just a surreal moment.
“You work super hard to come back. There was ups and downs on the rehab. It was a different type of rehab, a different type of surgery this time. I believe Dr. (Jeffrey) Dugas, we got it fixed this time. I’m feeling great.
“The emotions were rolling, but it wasn’t scared emotion, it was a happy emotion, like, ‘I’m finally back.’ All glory to God, man. Three ACLs, that’s hard to come back from. I’m just blessed to still play this game.”
He leaned on his experience to overcome the anxious feelings at the start of the game.
“That first drive was rough, I’m not gonna lie to you,” Barker said, again noting the missed pass to Letton. “But my experience – the little I have played – calmed me down. It’s a similar offense.”
The quarterback credited Troy head coach Chip Lindsey for keeping him focused, too.
“Chip talked to me, made sure, ‘Calm down, just go through your progressions, everything that we practice, just play like it’s practice,’” Barker said. “That helped calm me down. … I love playing for him. He’s an easy guy to play for.
“Then I had teammates come up and say how glad they are for me to be back. That just makes things even better. I want to try to influence this team the most I can, being the quarterback. So I’m super excited. It’s a good group of guys and it’s a great win for us.”
Barker, one of Troy’s four permanent team captains this season, presented Lindsey with a game ball in the locker room after the victory. The coach stayed dry, however – no celebratory water dousing.
“We can’t give him the water cooler now,” Barker said, shaking his head. “He’ll get that at the end of the season. That’d be too much for him.”
Barker doesn’t mind what’s next for the Trojans – two weeks to prepare for a home game against Southern Mississippi.
“To me, I love this new schedule that everybody’s on,” the quarterback said. “It gives you time to heal bumps and bruises and gives us time to prepare for them.”
The senior said he’d like two bye weeks in a season every year.
“I feel like an old man, so that’d help me out,” he said.