Peyton Barber is almost painfully shy, and he doesn’t waste much time filling reporter’s notebooks. If he is asked a question, he will answer it, brief and to the point. His running style is similarly direct.
At 5-11, 225 pounds, Barber unloads some Mack truck hits on would-be tacklers. His compass is always pointing north-south. The lack of flash may be why he has largely been overlooked on most teams he has played for until something happens and he gets his chance, like he did Sunday in the Bucs’ 26-20 overtime loss to the Packers.
Barber rushed for 102 yards on 23 carries, becoming the first Bucs running back to break the century plateau this season. The Bucs finished with a season-high 165 yards rushing despite a patchwork offensive line missing two starters and down to its third center.
"That’s something that I’ve dealt with my whole life pretty much from PAL ball to middle school to high school to college," Barber said. "Once I get my shot, nine time out of 10 I take advantage of my opportunity. I don’t know. I’m not the flashiest player but at the same time, I produce."
Barber’s need to produce for his family is why he left Auburn with two years of eligibility remaining. In part, it was to provide a home for his mother, Lori, who was living with her daughter and three grandchildren in a small apartment in Georgia. But his 1,017 rushing yards for Auburn in the 2015 season wasn’t enough to get him drafted, so he signed as a college free agent with the Bucs.
Barber had been stuck at fourth on the depth chart behind Doug Martin, Jacquizz Rodgers and Charles Sims.
Martin’s concussion prevented him from playing Sunday, and given his contract situation and Barber’s success, it seems unlikely Martin will be with the Bucs next season. Martin has three years remaining on a five-year, $35.75 million contract. But the last three seasons of the deal are not guaranteed, so it seems unlikely the Bucs want to pay him $6.75 million for 2018 when he will be 29 years old.
Could Barber, 23, be the answer to the Bucs’ struggles in the ground game?
"When Peyton has gone in there on a limited basis, he’s done okay," coach Dirk Koetter said Monday. "That, coupled with Doug being out, led to him getting more, and you know, you see a lot of times a running back gets into a little bit of a groove and it’s one of those days where he’s making yards. As long as you can do it efficiently, you keep feeding him."
On Sunday, Barber moved piles like a backhoe, tallying 68 of his yards after contact. He had 23 of the Bucs’ 30 running back carries Sunday. He also caught all four passes thrown to him and had a team-high 41 receiving yards.
"We did a pretty good job of run blocking," Koetter said. "Not perfect, but we did a pretty good job of run blocking but left some out there. The best thing Peyton did is he made yards after contact and broke some tackles."
So what now?
First, the Bucs have to learn when Martin will be out of the concussion protocol and able to resume playing. Then they have a decision to make.
Either Martin goes back to being the No. 1 tailback and getting the bulk of the rushing attempts, or they go to a committee approach to keep both players involved. Then you have to consider that Rodgers and Sims offer some help on third down.
Nothing Barber does this last month would necessarily prevent the Bucs from drafting a running back next year. But they may not feel the urgency to do it in the early rounds.
In the meantime, Barber expects to just keep plowing straight ahead.