Former Louisville tight end Gary Barnidge making a name for hims - WDRB 41 Louisville News

Former Louisville tight end Gary Barnidge making a name for himself in the NFL

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- The term "breakout star" is an annual label for the best, brightest and youngest NFL players.

It's typically reserved for rookies or second-year players, those former college stars who have suddenly emerged as household names on Sundays.

It's almost never the moniker of a 30-year-old on a team that hasn't made the playoffs in 13 years.

But that's the story of former University of Louisville tight end, Gary Barnidge.

Barnidge is the biggest surprise of the NFL season, catching 48 passes and seven touchdowns in 10 games so far for the Cleveland Browns. Nobody saw that production coming from a guy who had set a career-high with 13 catches last year.

That's what makes his career so surprising to date. Historically, this doesn't happen. You expect a six-year veteran with such inconsistent, or non-existent, production to bounce around so much that he's out of the league by the time he's 25.

But somehow, he found just enough of a niche to warrant a roster spot.

In his first five seasons as a Carolina Panther, he only caught a pass in two of them. He was used mostly in running plays as the Panthers' blocking tight end. That was his value for many NFL scouts coming out of the Louisville, but he also had to deal with established talent ahead of him.

"I’ve been behind Pro Bowlers in my career - Jordan Cameron and Greg Olsen," Barnidge told earlier this year. "Just getting opportunities is all it is. I think anybody in the league ... if they have the opportunity, they’re able to produce."

But when you look back, Barnidge had a similarly slow progression to his career in college.

Here are his career stats for Louisville:

Freshman: 7 receptions, 85 yards, 4 touchdowns

Sophomore: 17 receptions, 240 yards, 2 touchdowns

Junior: 13 receptions, 511 yards, 4 touchdowns

Senior: 53 receptions, 655 yards, 7 touchdowns

Barnidge played 48 games for U of L and was named first-team All-Big East in 2007.

It wasn't a bad career by any means, especially given a change of styles entering his senior year under new head coach Steve Kragthorpe.

That one solid season, however, wasn't enough to climb up draft boards, and Barnidge was taken in the fifth round by the Panthers in the 2008 NFL Draft. Carolina had already drafted their current starting tight end, Olsen, in the first round the year before. That didn't leave much room for Barnidge on the depth chart.

So he was relegated to a blocking specialist. He ran very few routes, and was  targeted more than nine times in just one of his five seasons in Carolina.

But a new opportunity came when the Browns' signed Barnidge in 2013. With a thinner depth chart on a struggling team, he was the right guy at the right time.

His 667 receiving yards through 10 games is more than the 603 he had for 92 career games coming into this season. Popular analytics website says Barnidge is one of nine players in NFL history to do that after turning 30.

Barnidge also has one of the craziest catches of the season, a touchdown in Baltimore in October where he caught the ball with his feet. If you haven't seen it, check it out here.

He has the fourth-most fantasy football points among NFL tight ends this year, a far cry from his 13-catch seasons in the past.

“Outside sources have always either labeled me as a blocking tight end or a receiving tight end, it almost changed every season” Barnidge told Monday Morning Quarterback. “Like they didn’t know what to make of me. I think that’s led to what I am now: a guy who can do anything on the field and is really hard to game-plan for.”

He's also impressed off the field. Barnidge started a charity called American Football Without Borders. He took a trip with the group to Brazil in 2014 to bring American football to the country, while also delivering new shoes to Brazilian children.

“In the position we’re in, we can touch lives just by saying hi or spending time with somebody,” Barnidge told ESPN. “I don’t think people understand that enough. Just by spending 10 minutes with someone or signing an autograph, you can change somebody’s life.”

Barnidge has made a name for himself in a profession that is incredibly difficult to do so. Just seven years ago, he was catching touchdowns from Brian Brohm at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium. 

Now, in the blink of an eye, he's turned himself into one of the best tight ends in the NFL. 

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