2023 CFL Draft profiles: Guelph REC Clark Barnes following in footsteps of Kian Schaffer-Baker

Photo courtesy: Kyle Rodriguez/Guelph Athletics

Three years ago, the Canadian Football League whiffed on Kian Schaffer-Baker.

It is difficult to describe in any kinder terms the circumstances that led the former University of Guelph receiver to land in the lap of the Saskatchewan Roughriders with the 30th overall pick in the fourth round of the 2020 CFL Draft.

The physical traits that have made him a legitimate NFL hopeful were readily apparent at the time — in fact, he was one of just a few players able to record verified testing numbers ahead of pandemic closures. However, an average collegiate career defined by mediocre quarterback play caused teams to overlook him. It proved to be a fatal error in evaluation.

In the two seasons since, the four receivers drafted in the first three rounds — Dejon Brissett, Trivel Pinto, Rysen John, and Tyler Ternowski — have combined for 35 receptions, 472 yards and a single touchdown. Schaffer-Baker has caught 115 passes for 1,523 yards and seven majors while establishing himself as the Riders’ top offensive weapon and arguably the best Canadian pass catcher in the league.

Ahead of the 2023 CFL Draft, Clark Barnes is hoping that story remains fresh in the minds of talent evaluators. Another uber-athletic receiver whose career with the Gryphons failed to live up to expectations, scouts must decide if they are experiencing unwanted deja vu or overcorrecting due to past failures.

“I feel like he’s gonna be a big reason that teams might hesitate when dropping my stock in the draft,” Barnes acknowledged in a recent interview with 3DownNation. “Them seeing this same situation happening with Kian is gonna definitely help me.”

That is just one of the ways in which Schaffer-Baker has influenced his 22-year-old successor. From the time that Barnes arrived on campus, the elder receiver has been a source of inspiration and guidance. Though they only played together for one season, the two have grown close in the years since and the third-year pro continues to be a resource he leans on.

“Starting from when I got there in 2019, just looking at a receiver as great as he is, you’re gonna learn a lot just seeing him cook up, seeing him do what he does in practice and games every day,” Barnes noted.

“Now we share the same trainer so I’m with him a lot. He gives me a lot of words; it’s damn near every week he tells me something new. Just to stay focused and stuff about being a pro that me, my trainer, and him will talk about.”

The six-foot-one, 192-pound prospect surrenders roughly two inches and 10 pounds to his fellow Guelph alumnus but shares many of the traits that have allowed Schaffer-Baker to dominate early in his CFL career. They possess similar speed and explosiveness, the type of athletic profile that is sure to make Barnes the talk of the National Combine testing circuit.

A year ago, Barnes jumped over 37 inches in the vertical and clocked a 4.63 forty-yard dash at the annual East-West Bowl combine, the second fastest of any player while running the test into the wind during a rain storm. Under ideal conditions in Edmonton later this month, that number is expected to improve and he believes he can claim to be faster than his mentor in a race — though that has yet to be proven.

“If I go around sub-4.5, get into those 4.4s, I’m gonna have to say myself definitely because he didn’t run one so he can’t really talk much about it,” Barnes laughed, pointing out that Schaffer-Baker bowed out of the forty at the 2020 Ontario Regional Combine.

“Jumping, I think he did 40 inches I’m pretty sure, so we’ll see about that. It’s definitely gonna be interesting.”

For now, the critical difference between the two is production. While Schaffer-Baker was viewed as having underwhelming statistics after making 95 catches for 1,544 yards and eight touchdowns in 28 collegiate games, Barnes can claim just 49 receptions for 650 yards and six touchdowns in 17 appearances.

Still, the league consensus is already higher on the Gryphons’ latest receiving product. He was named the 14th-rated prospect on the CFL’s latest Scouting Bureau rankings, a list that Schaffer-Baker never appeared on in his draft year.

The Brampton native’s top prospect status has been a virtual guarantee from the beginning of his career. A dynamic recruit coming out of Clarkson Football North, he originally committed to the University of Maine and even attended training camp in Orono before issues at home called him back north of the border.

“I actually left a week after they told me I was on the five-man rotation for receivers, so I was gonna play that year,” Barnes recalled. “It was all going good, I loved the football. It’s just there was a lot of stuff going on in my life. As a man making that decision, I just felt like I needed to be home and have a good support system there.”

The Black Bears’ loss was Guelph’s gain and the transfer’s impact was felt, quite literally, from the first moment he stepped onto a U Sports field. During the 2019 OUA season opener against McMaster, Barnes returned the game’s opening kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown.

A week later, he repeated the feat with a 106-yard return touchdown on the first play of the game against Carleton. In Week 3 against York, he kindly waited nearly 13 minutes before busting 86 yards for yet another major.

The message was sent. With three kickoff return touchdowns in his first three career games, the freshman was already the most dangerous playmaker in the OUA. From that point on, opponents kicked at Barnes just 14 more times in his entire career, using every trick in their arsenal to pin him into a corner. He managed just one more return touchdown.

“It was definitely frustrating, especially the times we were going a little stale on offence and I felt like I could give us a little boost,” the former first-team All-Canadian returner admitted. “But honestly, in 2019 we were getting the ball at like the 40-yard line. They were squibbing, onsiding it, so we were getting good field position regardless. It was helping the team anyways.”

The hype around Barnes was unavoidable that first season, but his role on the offence was initially small despite the hot start. He caught 11 passes for 186 yards and a touchdown while rushing for 22 yards and another major, slowly growing in confidence.

After the pandemic-cancelled 2020 season, he bloomed into a true offensive weapon. Barnes caught 29 passes for 406 yards and five touchdowns in five games, production that many felt was still just a taste of what he was capable of. He entered his senior season with high expectations and even a hint of Hec Crighton buzz.

None of that would come to fruition. Instead, he would get gator-rolled during the second quarter of Guelph’s Week 2 game against Windsor, suffering a high ankle sprain that derailed the entire year.

“It was misdiagnosed at first and, of course, we had gone down in the season, so I feel like I wanted to push a little to try to help us get back in it and help win some games,” Barnes recalled. “That recovery time that I didn’t really get properly, it’s hard to get with a high ankle during the season. That’s something that’s not going to leave you throughout the whole season.”

Playing on one good leg, the fourth-year dressed for just four games and recorded nine catches for 58 yards. It was a horrifically disappointing final season, one which might have caused any other prospect to take advantage of current COVID exemptions and defer their draft year, but Barnes remained steadfast in his belief that he is ready to become a pro.

It would seem that teams agree, given that his write-off 2022 campaign caused him to drop just one spot in the Scouting Bureau rankings. Having learned the lesson from Schaffer-Baker, teams remain fixated on Barnes’ traits instead of his statistics — whether that deficiency is caused by injury or a lack of help around him.

Even when their top receiver was healthy, the Gryphons never afforded him the top-tier quarterback play that tends to elevate elite pass catchers. From the run-first Theo Landers to raw freshman Shawn Lal to struggling American transplant Jake Helfrich, few would blame the budding star should he choose to criticize the situation under centre for stunting his growth during his tenure. Barnes insists on taking a different tact.

“You always want to do the best that you can so when you see that it’s not happening, of course, you’re gonna be frustrated, especially being the competitor that I am,” he said thoughtfully. “But it wasn’t ever a situation where I was mad at my quarterback. I know there’s a lot that goes into succeeding as a quarterback, it’s a tough job and I know what they go through day in and day out, week by week.”

“There was never any type of animosity towards my quarterbacks at all. I think there’s a lot more going on than people think just looking in from the outside when quarterbacks and receivers are not connecting and the offence is not clicking.”

Regardless of who has been throwing passes, Guelph now has a well-earned reputation for producing receiving talent. Following in the footsteps of Schaffer-Baker, Kiondre Smith was drafted in the fourth round by the Hamilton Tiger-Cats a year ago and made an instant impact with 17 catches for 247 yards and a touchdown as a rookie. Barnes is up next, with players like Vyshonne Janusas and Kaine Stevenson coming down the pipe.

“We take pride in it,” Barnes said. “It’s really now starting to become a thing in our locker room, in the receiver room, that this is what we do; we send guys pro year after year.”

Having learned from his former teammates, Barnes believes he can emulate their early success in multiple phases of the game. Faster than he was as a freshman, he is already itching for a chance to return again in the CFL.

Similarly, he has watched Schaffer-Baker in Saskatchewan and found himself envious of the creativity with which he was used, even lining up in the backfield on occasion. Rarely allowed to run with the ball in his hands at Guelph, Barnes hopes he too can carve out that type of role.

“I want to be everywhere. I don’t want to be stuck to just wide out or just slot. I want to be able to be moved around and affect the game in all aspects,” he said with obvious excitement.

“My favourite player growing up was Cordarrelle Patterson and we’ve seen him do that in Atlanta and be a much better offensive player than he’s been his whole career. Guys like Deebo Samuel, I feel like I could be a guy like that and get the ball in my hands.”

With his unique physical tools, that is well within the realm of possibility. Now fully healthy, Barnes showed at the recent College Gridiron Showcase in Fort Worth, Texas that he could win against top NCAA competition. With high expectations entering the Combine, he wants scouts to know that his success will be about more than just speed or leaping ability.

“People always put it to my athleticism but I feel like I’m very smart with my body,” Barnes insisted. “The way that I can put myself in a position to make defenders think I’m going one way and really go the other, make a move after the ball, there’s a lot of thought that goes into the things that I do and the way that I break tackles. I feel like my mind is very underrated. I want to be a genius for my body.”

Genius or not, the smart money is that Barnes will be selected higher than his former Guelph teammates come draft day, though questions remain as to just how high. With productive NCAA veterans like Jared Wayne and Cole Tucker available, another high-ceiling U Sports pass catcher could slip down the board, once again begging the question of whether or not we’ll ever learn.

J.C. Abbott is a University of British Columbia graduate and high school football coach. He covers the CFL, B.C. Lions, CFL Draft and the three-down league's Global initiative.