'The hardest football player that we have': Meet Graham Barton, Duke football's secret weapon

<p>Senior Graham Barton (left, 62) will lead Duke's offensive line, which finished first in the league in sacks allowed.&nbsp;</p>

Senior Graham Barton (left, 62) will lead Duke's offensive line, which finished first in the league in sacks allowed. 

In one of the biggest moments of last season, then-sophomore quarterback Riley Leonard pushed his way into the endzone with just under two minutes left in the second quarter of Duke’s Military Bowl win against UCF, putting the Blue Devils firmly in control of a game that punctuated a dream season.

Watching that play carefully, keen observers will notice that the gap Leonard uses to fall into the endzone is formed by No. 62 driving his man into the ground. In fact, looking back at any of Duke’s biggest offensive drives reveals a common trend: Left tackle Graham Barton blocks everything and everyone.

Barton, recently ranked in ESPN’s top 100 college players and projected to go in one of the top rounds of next year’s NFL Draft, has spent his Duke career in the trenches, starting at center his freshman year before moving to left tackle. While Barton’s name often won’t show up in the stat sheet, his blocking is the engine that fuels every play. The preseason All-ACC first-teamer told The Chronicle, “the only stat that an offensive lineman cares about is the scoreboard.”

To truly appreciate the importance of the O-line, look no further than the average salaries of NFL players. The highest-paid position by average is not wide receiver, linebacker or even quarterback. Instead, the left tackle, responsible for protecting a quarterback’s blind side and therefore the focal point of pass protection, takes the cake at an average of over $8 million per year.

Barton’s path — which now seems destined for Sunday football — has been rife with obstacles. Now a senior, he has played through a pandemic, two lopsided losing seasons, position shifts and a head coaching change. Through it all, Barton describes himself as “a positive guy who works his tail off and enjoys every second of that process.” 

“It’s really kind of who I try to be every day,” he said.

‘Thrown right into the fire’

Growing up in Brentwood, Tenn., a suburb of Nashville, Barton started on the gridiron in the fourth grade after convincing his mom to let him play. As he started to grow into his now-6-foot-5, 314-pound frame, he developed into a three-star prospect. Barton fielded offers from a number of Power 5 programs including Michigan State, Virginia Tech and Missouri, but it took just one official visit to Durham for him to commit as a Blue Devil days later.

“I fell in love with the people at Duke,” Barton said. “The coaching staff, the players I got to meet, the kids that were also in my recruiting class, just anyone I met on campus was a joy. And I felt comfortable here, I felt like it was a home.”

However, Barton’s welcome to his new home was stymied by the pandemic, with his freshman season in 2020 coming at the height of lockdowns and case surges. Forced to start practice more than a month late and learn a new position at center, Barton — named to the second team freshman All-America team by The Athletic — was a bright spot on a Duke roster that won just two games in a hectic season.

A positive consequence of the restrictions, though, was a closeness forged between Barton and the other members of his freshman class and the group of redshirt freshmen a year above him. This year’s squad now has 11 starters between those two classes.

“As freshmen you don’t know anyone that well, but I think that definitely helped our class grow close, and then lean on each other and lean on the rest of the guys,” Barton said. “We didn’t have a whole lot of team success, but just to be able to get through that time period with our heads held high and be able to show up every day and do the work says a lot about who we are as a team [now] and who we were as a team [then].”

“[Between] my class and the one above that, we’ve got a lot of great fifth-years, [we] have a strong core of leaders and guys who have been through a lot here. Guys [that] know what hard work looks like,” Barton added. “To have numerous guys who can lead the team, help be leaders and set examples for the young guys goes a long way.”

Barton’s sophomore season again brought something new — this time a shift out to left tackle. With the intricacies that go into footwork, blocking angles and countless other responsibilities on the offensive line, the big man had to work through the process of learning a novel position once more. 

Despite another lackluster 2021 season from the team, Barton again rose to the challenge and continued his steady progress as a player — even being honored with the Mike Suglia Award, given to the program’s top sophomore. While Barton had not yet become a household name nationally, by the time head coach Mike Elko arrived, the lineman was ready to climb for even taller peaks.

Separating from the pack

Starting in the weight room and continuing through spring ball and the summer, a grueling offseason brought the team together further as a cohesive unit and set Barton and the Blue Devils up for a potential breakout campaign that fall.

However, even after all their progress, Barton and the rest of the team did not fully know what to expect from the 2022 season. A 30-0 Week-1 win against Temple was an early indication of things to come.

“It’d been a while for me and my teammates [since a win like that], so looking up and seeing that win by that margin was awesome,” Barton said. “I was just so proud of all the guys and the work we had put in offseason, and I knew that, ‘hey, we might have something special here.’”

Among Duke’s successes in 2022, Barton exploded for a monster year himself, becoming the only Power 5 tackle on the year with an 85.0 grade in both pass and run blocking. The offensive line led the ACC in sacks allowed and No. 62 started garnering national attention as a top left tackle.

Throughout his newfound levels of success, Barton stuck to his routine and focused on maintaining consistency in his high-level play. Instead of being satisfied with wins and personal recognition, both of which he was getting, he continued to focus on improving his game.

“Results will come,” Barton said. “You can’t really focus on the end goal as much as just the day-to-day process that you go through. That’s been the biggest thing where my identity has kind of shone through.”

Continuing the drive

That day-to-day process continued through the offseason, but its aim changed. For the first time in Barton’s collegiate career, Duke is returning not just successful players but a large portion of a successful team. The Blue Devils are no longer focused on building the foundations of winning, but are looking to reach another level with their core.

“[We are] focusing more on how we’re doing things, not just what we’re doing and why we’re doing things,” Barton said. “How are we doing each drill? How are you improving on this rep? Going from 3-9 to a nine-win season is big, obviously, for any program. [We want] to avoid hanging our hats on that. Taking a step forward this year was a big message this offseason.”

As a senior, Barton’s role as a leader has also changed. Now established as a NFL-level talent, he emphasizes leading by example and raising the standard of those around him.

“True leaders,” according to Barton, “walk the walk — they truly show up every day and do the work.” He made a point to tab a number of his teammates, including his longtime roommate and tight end Nicky Dalmolin and the team’s four captains as prime examples of players who are committed to long-term improvement.

That sentiment was returned by Leonard, who called Barton “arguably the hardest football player that we have, [the] hardest worker on the field and off the field.”

With a gauntlet of a schedule that includes four preseason top-25 teams, Barton and the Blue Devils will find out how much their work has paid off. And while his name may not flash across the scoreboard for a Duke touchdown, No. 62 will be in the thick of every moment.

Editor's note: This piece is one of many in The Chronicle's 2023 Duke football preseason supplement. For the rest, click here.


Dom Fenoglio | Assistant Blue Zone editor

Dom Fenoglio is a Trinity sophomore and an assistant Blue Zone editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.

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