Now together again.
In Bakersfield, California, it was Barnes who was the more coveted player. The powerful linebacker fielded major-conference offers -- from LSU, Oregon, USC and a dozen others -- and chose UCLA. The skinny quarterback went underrecruited and ended up at Utah State.
“When I think of that, he should’ve been at a bigger school,” Barnes said. “Utah State is definitely a good program and he did what he had to do there, but in my eyes he’s definitely one of those guys who could’ve been at a place like Clemson.”
While they were apart, it was Love who turned into the star, the future first-round pick, while Barnes went relatively unnoticed by the NFL. Two hundred fifty-five players heard their name called during the draft. Barnes wasn’t one of them, but it brought them together again.
Barnes had four NFL offers to sign as an undrafted free agent. He chose the Packers -- not because they picked Love at No. 26 to be the heir apparent to Aaron Rodgers, but it sure was a bonus.
“I knew the Packers were interested in me before the draft even started just based off calls,” Barnes said. “And then when Jordan got picked, I started thinking this could be a possibility and thought it would be cool. When free agency came around, I had to take Jordan out of the equation and make the best decision for myself, and now that it happened, it’s surreal to be back on the same team.”
Five games into their rookie seasons, it’s Barnes who has impressed. No Packers rookie has played more snaps than Barnes, who didn’t even survive the final cut at the end of training camp.
Despite an impressive camp, Barnes didn’t get the call to the 53-man roster until the eve of the season opener against the Vikings.
One day later, he lined up next to Christian Kirksey to start the game. Three weeks after that, he replaced an injured Kirksey as the No. 1 inside linebacker, meaning he was not only on the field full time but also charged with relaying the defensive calls in the huddle.
“Seeing Krys, I’ve been with him since middle school, it’s been awesome to just see him come in and to be able to do what he has done,” Love said this week. “He didn’t have the easiest route to get here, and I think he has made the most of the opportunity he has been given.
"He’s been playing really well and it’s exciting for me to see. He’s making a name for himself here with the Packers. With ‘Kirko’ and some other guys dealing with injuries, he was the next guy up and had to step up for that role that we needed.”
Barnes has been on the field for 195 total plays, including defense (142) and special teams (53). That’s more than double the next-highest rookie (seventh-round safety Vernon Scott) for playing time. Love, as expected, has been inactive as the third quarterback every week. Second-round running back AJ Dillon has played 25 snaps on offense, while third-round tight end Josiah Deguara played 31 but his season ended in Week 4 because of a torn ACL.
“I’ve thought about that since high school as far as we’ve kind of like flipped roles, you know?” Barnes said. “In high school, I was more the guy that had a lot of offers and plenty of places to choose from and Jordan didn’t. He really only had one. Now to see him with his success, being a first-round pick and me going undrafted, man, we continue to battle, we continue to push each other.
“He’s my brother, so I continue to see him grow day by day and our path is just a little bit different, you know?"
Barnes and Love spent most of the offseason together in Bakersfield, where they worked out and participated in the virtual offseason program.
“Even before the draft, still trying to keep it to the quarantine rules, we’d find a place to get a lift in or go on a run to make sure we’re in shape,” Barnes said. “We’re even doing the same thing now, just trying to make sure we’re staying on each other about what we’re eating and working out. We’re pushing each other even more now that we’re on the same team.”
Putting two guys in the NFL in the same year isn’t the norm for Liberty High School in Bakersfield.
“That was an exceptional group,” Liberty coach Bryan Nixon said. “We’ll put out one or two Division I guys, but on that team we had Krys at UCLA, Jordan at Utah State, our running back (Quincy Jountti) went to Sacramento State and one of our DBs (Ramon Henderson) just went to Notre Dame. So we’ve had a few over the course of time. To have that many on one team was rare for us, and those guys were just all exceptionally close, led by Jordan and Krys.”
A surprise and an indictment
That Barnes is now the No. 1 inside linebacker can viewed in two ways: As a surprise to some and an indictment on others.
Barnes leads the Packers with 33 tackles, including a career-best 10 in Sunday’s 38-10 loss to the Buccaneers. But that game also magnified the difference between the Packers’ defense and Tampa Bay’s, which shut down Rodgers and the Packers' offense in large part because of their speedy inside linebacker combination of veteran Lavonte David (a former second-round pick) and Devin White (the fifth pick in the 2019 draft).
In three drafts at the helm, Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst has picked two inside linebackers, but none in the first two rounds. Oren Burks (third round, 2018) is now playing outside linebacker after failing to crack the lineup in his first two-plus seasons and rookie Kamal Martin (fifth-round) was on track to start opening day before a training camp knee injury landed him on injured reserve (Martin returned to practice last week and could make his debut Sunday against the Texans).
The Packers signed Kirksey to a low-cost deal (two years, $13 million) because they didn’t want to pay Blake Martinez, who signed with the Giants for $10 million a year. Upon his arrival in New York, Martinez essentially said the Packers don’t value the inside linebacker spot and viewed him as "the clean-up crew guy.” It's true that defensive coordinator Mike Pettine’s scheme emphasizes the edge rushers, which explains why Gutekunst signed free agents Preston Smith and Za'Darius Smith in 2019.
That, however, isn’t Barnes’ concern.
“It meant a lot getting those plays,” Barnes said of his early-season playing time. “No matter how many I did get, you just want to treat it like it was gold. For me, to be able to get the chance to go out there and display my ability and contribute to the team in some sort of fashion is all I could ask for. It’s tremendous for me to get out there and be able to see the things I want to see to get better at.”