TAMPA — As precocious as Sam Barrington is on the football field, he might be more ahead of his age away from the game he loves.
The 19-year-old from Jacksonville, who played extensively as a freshman last fall, is in position to take over as USF's starting middle linebacker this season. It's a position of leadership but one Barrington is eager to have as part of a young defense rebounding from the loss of potentially five NFL draft picks.
"You have to get guys to believe what you're saying, to make your words credible," he said. "You have to show guys you're supposed to be in that spot. To get older guys to believe that and be on the same page with you, that might be the biggest challenge."
Barrington exudes a maturity beyond what you expect from someone in their first year of college. But that's no surprise to his mother, Paris Johnson, who said she saw that maturity, "even when he was 3 years old."
"He's always been a peacemaker. Always had to have everything in order, wanted to make everything perfect," said Johnson, who will drive from Jacksonville with six of her children for Saturday's spring game at Raymond James Stadium. "He wanted to be the man of the house, and he's been a role model for his siblings."
When two older sisters moved out when Barrington was 9, his mother had to keep working, so Barrington helped keep an eye on five younger siblings.
"I guess that's why," Barrington said when asked about his maturity. "That was the process. That's how my cards came, and that's how I played them."
How is Barrington a role model for them now?
Take spring break, for instance. For most college freshmen, that means a week at the beach. And that's just what Barrington had last month, albeit half a world away, on the beaches of Ghana in west Africa.
His father, also named Sam Barrington, was born there and has lived there for the past seven years, running his crane manufacturing company. Its slogan: Nothing too heavy, nothing too high.
Barrington went to Ghana twice during high school and plans to go again in May after the spring semester ends.
A nine-day trip allowed him to see his father and his business, but also another side of the world. On the same beach he rode Jet Skis on, he saw a village of people and a group of about 100 men working together to haul in a huge fishing net, "longer than this building."
He wanted to help if only for a few minutes. So he joined in, bracing himself against the waves, helping to bring in a net that was loaded with all kinds of ocean life.
"Everything," he remembers. "Jellyfish, marlin, barracudas, stingrays, lobsters."
Barrington came home to Florida wanting to do more and now is working to set up a foundation to help the children of Ghana. He knows he can do only so much as a college kid — "school clothes, pencils, papers, shoes," things people here might take for granted — but also knows he has teammates who will help him and that some day, football might give him an opportunity to do more.
Just as Barrington wants to learn more about his father's life in Ghana, his father has done the same. Last year's Florida State game was the first time he saw his son play football in person.
USF's historic win also came on his mother's birthday.
"We grew up Florida State fans," she said. "But the day my son played Florida State and beat them, that was the happiest day I could ever ask for."
Johnson is proud that Barrington's brother, Kwame, is following in his footsteps after being the top running back at Terry Parker High, where he was Sam's teammate for two seasons. He'll graduate next month and hopes to play college football, like his brother.
Barrington, 6 feet 3 and 220 pounds, missed a week of spring drills with a shoulder injury, but he's focused on learning a new defense and putting himself in position to be a leader. He had 41 tackles without a single start last year. (Senior linebacker Sabbath Joseph, with 48, is the only returning player with more in 2009.)
He sees a difference under new coach Skip Holtz and likes what he sees.
"The tone of everything, it's vibrant and upbeat, and I like that," Barrington said.
Barrington played middle and weakside linebacker last year. But under new coordinator Mark Snyder, he focused exclusively in the middle, where he's the favorite to replace senior Kion Wilson as starter.
"I think he brings an awful lot of intangibles with an awful lot of physical skills to the table," Holtz said.
"As he becomes more vocal and feels more comfortable with what's going on on the field, I think he has a lot of leadership qualities about him. … (The trip to Ghana) really touched his heart, and I think it speaks volumes for the type of young man he is."
Times staff writer Greg Auman can be reached at [email protected] and at (813) 226-3346. Check out his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/usf and follow him at Twitter.com/gregauman.