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MOST ALABAMA FANS HAVE NEVER HEARD MARK BARRON'S deep voice. The Crimson Tide free safety has taken to campus life like a Trappist monk, meting out words almost reluctantly. "I'll say things when I have to," the senior explained to SI. The reticence can be refreshing (especially when waxing on about the subject of the self is all too frequently part of a college star's approach), yet it has also stunted fans' ability to connect with a cornerstone of perhaps the best defense in Alabama history. And so Barron remains an enigma wrapped in a body that's been NFL-ready since high school.
He stands 6' 2", 218 pounds and covers 40 yards in less than 4.5 seconds, which is about half as long as it takes him to express an opinion, on the rare occasion he feels like sharing. He does not tweet, and he grants media interviews rarely. He hates repeating himself. Barron treats talking points as he does ballcarriers in the open field—as things he shouldn't have to hit again if he hits them hard the first time.
Not that too many ballcarriers reached the open field against the Crimson Tide this season. 'Bama's pass defense was the nation's best overall, leading in fewest yards (1,396), fewest touchdowns (six) and lowest third-down conversion percentage (25%) in the regular season, and that's in large part because of Barron.
Though 2011 wasn't his best year statistically (he had 66 tackles and two interceptions), it was the season he came into his own at the position coaches feel he was born to play. "I remember recruiting him and telling him once he mastered this defense, he was going to be a great player," says defensive coordinator Kirby Smart. "That has happened."
Now Barron is ticketed to the pros—he's regarded as a mid- to late-first-round draft pick—but the way that he has stiff-armed the spotlight may have cost him accolades that would attest to his impact. Named to the AP's 2011 All-America team, Barron watched as flashier rivals from LSU took home even bigger spoils. Barron was a finalist for the Jim Thorpe Award (given to college football's best DB) but lost that to the Tigers' Morris Claiborne. Barron was a semifinalist for the Chuck Bednarik Award (best defensive player) but lost that to LSU super sophomore Tyrann Mathieu. That Barron outplayed Mathieu when their teams met in November—totaling six tackles to Mathieu's five and adding a 14-yard interception return—was overlooked in the 9--6 overtime outcome. That Barron would edge both of those rivals for college football's ultimate team prize was in its way the best revenge.
GROWING UP IN MOBILE, BARRON WAS JUST AS STEALTHY A personality, yet everyone back home could see he was going places. He was the kid playing on the youth league defensive line by age six; dunking by the eighth grade; taking first place in the shot put and the triple jump and third in the long jump at the 5A state championship as a junior at St. Paul's Episcopal School in 2007. By the end of that summer he was 6' 2", 205 pounds and dusting his football teammates on the bench press (335 pounds) and in squats (455 pounds). Superman, they called him. Barron was so talented that St. Paul's coach Mike Bates played him at running back and wide receiver as well as on defense. It was at linebacker that Bates saw the most potential. "When he fills the hole, he fills it in a hurry," Bates said in December of Barron's senior year. "And he usually has a bad attitude when he gets there."
While recruiting Barron, Tide coach Nick Saban believed Barron was a natural safety—but once Saban had the player in the fold, the temptation to try him out at other positions proved too great to resist. Saban started Barron on kickoff coverage teams and used him at cornerback in nickel and dime formations. For any player this is a load. For a true freshman it had to be unbearable. But Barron (surprise, surprise) never said much, never complained. It was only after the season, in which Barron tallied a paltry 18 tackles and 1½ sacks in limited appearances, that anyone gave voice to his struggles. Saban did the explaining. "In our efforts to get Mark Barron on the field, we put him in more situations than maybe he was ready to handle," the coach said in the week leading up to the '09 season.
That fall Saban made Barron his starting strong safety, and Barron's productivity skyrocketed. He led the SEC in interceptions (seven) and finished second on the Tide in tackles (76) while helping Alabama win the national title. But in 2010, as the Tide's only returning regular defensive starter, Barron struggled again—not so much in compiling stats (he led 'Bama with 75 tackles), but in his new responsibilities as a team leader and signal-caller for the secondary. During that season's Iron Bowl he found himself literally overextended as Auburn rallied back from a 24--0 hole. Late in the first half Barron let the Tigers' Emory Blake streak past him on a 36-yard scoring reception; Barron caught up with Blake just as he crossed the goal line and tomahawked his right arm in a bid to jar the ball loose. Barron tore his own right pectoral muscle in the process.
Barron knew he was hurt but simply told his coaches he wanted to keep playing. His pain was obvious to Auburn: Early in the third quarter the Tigers targeted him again, and Terrell Zachery got by him for a 70-yard scoring catch. Auburn scored twice more, pulling off a historic 28--27 comeback. Had Barron been able to raise his right arm, it might have never happened. "I don't know exactly what would have happened—interception, tackle," he said of the Zachery play, "[but] I'm 100 percent sure it wouldn't have been a touchdown."