Some kids grow up wanting to be football players. Some kids grow up wanting to fly a plane. Some kids grow up simply wanting to follow in the family business. Jacob Barnes, an aviation major whose brother kicked for the Bulldogs from 2014 to 2017, may be a Louisiana Tech legacy, but as he pursues two paths most kids only dream of, he’s piloting his own journey.
Jacob Barnes Piloting his own Journey
“I think one of the biggest things he’s helped me out with is finding my own pathway,” Barnes says of the brother that helped pave the way to Ruston and Louisiana Tech but whose footsteps along the way he’s most definitely deviated from as he plots a course all of his own.
“Yeah, I followed him to Tech, but he encouraged me to find my own way, which I think has really been through aviation. It’s something that he didn’t do, not really anyone has done.”
Football is very much the Barnes family business. Jonathan Barnes was finishing his Louisiana Tech kicking career while Jacob was still at Woodlawn High School. Their father, Andrew Barnes, has been a long-time high school coach, ensuring that the brothers were around the sport as they were growing up.
Flying, however, is very much not the Barnes family business. Not only that, it’s a rarity for a college football player to hold a private pilot’s license or even entertain the idea of doing so. Scroll down to the bottom of the roster bios, and you usually see a litany of exercise science, communication, or general studies. Aviation is not quite so common.
In that respect, Jacob is piloting his own journey, charting his own course to a potential career at an age when many players are laser-focused on where their football dreams may take them. It’s a journey that he had no idea he’d be embarking upon as he traveled the oft-turbulent air of the high school recruiting cycle.
“Growing up, I never really had aviation in mind,” Barnes reflects. “When I was looking to get recruited, I wanted to find a major that seemed fun. Not just going to school for football but something to pursue academically. When I was on a visit to Tech, I talked to different majors, eventually came across aviation, and started talking with them and was like ‘wow, this is awesome.'”
That feeling of awesomeness quickly gave way to something else as Barnes soon found himself alone at the controls of a plane, in charge of his own direction, and very much the pilot of his own destiny.
“I had my first flight, and I was kind of nervous because I’d already been accepted into the program, I’d never really flown in a small plane by myself like that before. So, I was like ‘This is either going to be it, or not it’ but I ended up loving it, it was awesome, and from there, it took off, and I really fell in love with flying.”
Football, Flying, and Field Goal Kicking
From being accompanied in a small plane, through solo flights across the country and the nuances of instrument reading, to gaining a commercial qualification and a foothold in the door with United Airlines, Barnes has turned the pursuit of an academic qualification to run alongside football into a potential career once his playing days are over.
For now, football and flying run concurrently as he navigates his way through his time at Louisiana Tech. Barnes juggles the time constraints of being a student, being a student-athlete, working a job at the airport, all while trying to accumulate the hours that will ultimately dictate how far his flying career can go.
There’s a perception that kickers just turn up and kick and go home, but practice and working out are just as important for specialists as for quarterbacks. When you’re out the door and in the air by 7 AM some mornings, finding that balance can be the toughest assignment there is.
“It’s a lot,” Barnes laughs. “You have to find your own time to go fly and then balancing that with going to practice because you don’t want to be going off practice and hop into an airplane because you’re exhausted. Either way, flying a plane then going to practice and being exhausted. You have to find a way to be comfortable. When you enjoy doing them both, it’s not so bad.”
Not only has Barnes enjoyed pursuing both football and flying, but he has also excelled at both as well. He was an all-decade honoree from his time at Woodlawn—a program that holds significant meaning for him due to the family connection—and he found it “pretty awesome to see” the recognition. After redshirting in 2019, his career really began to take off as a redshirt freshman kicker and punter in 2020.
Barnes showcased his skills by nailing all his PATs, going 12 of 14 in field goals, averaging 36.9 yards per punt, and booming a career-long 51-yarder. These impressive performances earned him a spot on the CUSA All-Freshman team and made him a semifinalist for the prestigious Lou Groza Award. Additionally, the Louisiana Tech standout sealed a victory with a game-winning field goal in a double-overtime game against UAB.
“It was crazy,” Barnes talks about the globally disrupted 2020 season. “The biggest thing for me was that it was finally an opportunity to play. It was really the year that I could show who I was. I think that was the most exciting thing for me. There was obviously a lot of other things going on, but to be able to step on that field and play was awesome.”
After impressing again with all-conference commendation in 2021, the last season saw Barnes take something of a statistical nosedive, if you’ll excuse the blatant aviation pun. He missed his first career PAT while recording a career-low 72.2% field goal completion.
“Last year was definitely frustrating,” Barnes admits.
“We had the most blocks in the country, which is something you don’t want to happen as a kicker. I think my kicks are sometimes lower, so this offseason has been a grind trying to get the ball higher, making sure it isn’t anywhere close to being blocked.”
While Barnes has been working on ensuring that he gets the correct altitude on his field goals, being a kicker—much like being a pilot—requires a high degree of mental fortitude, and the Louisiana Tech specialist is leaning on that to ensure that 2023 sees him emerge from a turbulent passage on his journey.
“Just taking last year as motivation to go out and do well this year,” Barnes addresses how you shake off what could be described as a subpar season. “I’d had a good year before so I know I can do it, I know I want to do it, so taking that and putting it back on the field at a quality I know I can do.”
Barnes and Louisiana Tech Ready to Takeoff in 2023
After firing on all cylinders in his first year with the program, Louisiana Tech has stalled and experienced a steady descent into the doldrums of Conference USA play in the last two seasons.
Yet, ahead of the 2023 college football season, there seems to be a renewed sense of belief—both in and around Ruston—about the potential for Bulldog success in the upcoming season. The team has retained some of their top talent and bolstered the roster with some of the better names in the college football transfer portal.
“We want to win a Conference USA Championship,” Barnes states when I ask about the level of expectation within the four walls of ‘The Joe.’ “It’s that simple. That’s all we’ve got on our minds. We know last season was a letdown, and we’re going to come for it all this year. We know what we have, we’ve been building, we’ve been growing, and we want to show everybody what we’ve got.”
For Barnes, landing a Conference USA Championship would be the pinnacle of his footballing journey—to date.
Meanwhile, there are multiple avenues of opportunity for his aviation adventures—multiple flight paths, if you will—as he plots the course for his own pathway.
He’s on course to become a first officer at United Airlines, has dreams of flying internationally, and laughs as he talks about “long-term, I want to be flying a jet. That’s definitely the goal.”
From a distance, it might seem like the two strands of Barnes’ story are separate. Football is the family business, and aviation has become an avenue to create his own pathway while at Louisiana Tech.
However, as the fifth-year kicker explains, the two endeavors have a very clear similarity that binds them together.
“They both run off adrenaline. Going to kick a field goal, going to fly a plane. It’s a lot of adrenaline. The biggest thing is how are you controlling that, how are you using that, to look down and say ‘I’ve got to do this’. It is awesome, it is cool, but you do have to focus, you do have to lock in, and know that you have to land the airplane or kick that field goal.”
For some, landing a plane is a matter of life and death. For others, college football might mean even more.
Louisiana Tech kicker Barnes is taking them both head-on as he pilots his own path.