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Gophers' Thomas Barber honed aggressive football skills on the ice

Maryland Terrapins quarterback Max Bortenschlager (18) drops back to pass as he evades Minnesota Golden Gophers linebacker Thomas Barber (41) in the first quarter at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis on Sept. 30, 2017. Jesse Johnson / USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS — When Thomas Barber delivered crushing checks for the Robbinsdale Armstrong High School hockey team, his coach Dan Charleston would look apologetically at the other bench.

"Thomas would hit guys so hard," Charleston recalled. "He hit a kid so hard one time that his forehead split open."

Barber wasn't a goon on skates. The forward would score some goals, but he relished his enforcer role on the ice, bringing the same physical style he now uses as the Gophers' starting middle linebacker. On a roster peppered with two-sport prep athletes, he is the only scholarship player at Minnesota who played high school hockey.

"Football is my heart, but I will always miss hockey," Barber said.

After tallying a career-high 16 tackles in a 30-27 loss to Michigan State last week, Barber is becoming to a leader on the Gophers' defense. The 6-foot-1, 233-pound sophomore has a team-best 52 tackles heading into the homecoming game against Illinois on Saturday.

"It's kind of becoming his defense," Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said. "He's starting to understand how it all fits together."

Fleck credited Barber's coverage skills, tackling and alignment calls at the line of scrimmage, along with how he fills his gaps on running plays. Barber is also one of the 30-some players on the team's Leadership Council.

"But he's still got a long way to go," Fleck said. "He will tell you the same ... but you've seen such a growth from him from once we first got here to where he is now."

Instincts are the best attribute of a middle linebacker. After playing last season as a true freshman, Barber feels like the game has slowed down as he prepares to make his seventh career start Saturday. He said that process began in Weeks 2 and 3 in wins over Oregon State and Middle Tennessee State. Thomas, whose only scholarship offer came from the Gophers, is now considered one of the team's hardest hitters.

"I started (seeing) my keys easier and started being able to see pulling guard and read the quarterback's eyes," Barber.

Barber's understanding for where the ball is headed on the football field was honed on the ice.

"He anticipated where the puck was going to be," Charleston said. "That's what he was good at. That and his brute strength of being able to fend off opponents and being able to push guys over, hold them off with one arm and drive to the net."

His physical play doesn't mean Barber was a bully. "He hit guys and when they'd fall over, he'd help them up," Charleston said. "He wasn't going to stand over you and say, 'Look at me, I'm Thomas Barber.'"

Charleston said Barber could have taken opportunities to do that because a successful football career seemed to be in his DNA and his destiny.

His father, Marion Barber, ranks sixth on the Gophers' all-time rushing list with 3,094 yards. His eldest brother, Marion Barber III, is fourth at 3,276. Another brother, Dom, who also played hockey, was a standout Gophers defensive back. All played in the NFL.

Thomas was in elementary school when Marion starred for the Gophers in 2001-04, and he was in junior high when Dom suited up in maroon and gold in 2004-07.

"He had every opportunity to put himself on that pedestal, but I have never once seen that happen with Thomas," Charleston said. "It's almost been the opposite to where you think he almost lacks confidence, but that's his maturity. He knows in his mind what he is and what he can be."

The Pioneer Press is a Forum News Service media partner.