- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 22, 2003

SAN DIEGO Linebacker Eric Barton left the University of Maryland four years ago, and at times he seemed a long way from being a big-time NFL player.

He's still not quite there, but he's getting darn close. A fifth-round pick by the Oakland Raiders in 1999, Barton led the club with 124 tackles this year in his first season as a starter, and he had six sacks and two interceptions for the AFC champions, as well.

"It's been a long road, but it's been a good road," Barton said yesterday, somewhat lost amid the hype of Super Bowl Media Day and big-name teammates like Rich Gannon, Jerry Rice and Bill Romanowski. "It seems like it's all happening at the right time."

Indeed, the Oakland linebacking corps, a weak spot last season, has become a strength with Barton, Romanowski and rookie Napolean Harris the three new starters.

A corps that had questionable pursuit ability now gets to the ball quickly and with power. Although Romanowski no longer has great speed at age 36, his instincts allow him to get in position. And Barton has answered his biggest question by playing the pass as well as he's always stopped the run.

"I think right now we're a lot closer as a team than we've ever been before," Barton said. "As a defense we're communicating a lot better. It's paying off."

Barton got three starts as a rookie, but an injury caused him to miss most of 2000. He returned to play mostly special teams last year before benefiting from this season's overhaul. His knowledge now goes beyond technique and plays he also has figured out how to get that extra edge.

"I've tried to take care of my body a lot better, as far as stretching and dieting and things like that," Barton said. "I always try to be in optimal shape for the game."

Still on his mind are the Terps, who struggled under Mark Duffner and Ron Vanderlinden during his playing days before erupting under Ralph Friedgen the past two years.

"I talk to all those guys still," Barton said of his old teammates, adding of the program's improvement, "It's about time. It's a great feeling."

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