Josh Ayers

Since its debut 10 years ago, the cover of EA Sports’ “NCAA Football” video game series has been reserved for icons.

Heisman Trophy winners Desmond Howard, Charles Woodson and Reggie Bush exemplify the standard, so a Facebook-circulating Photoshop job placing Cal Poly wide receiver Ramses Barden on the cover of this year’s XBOX 360 version may seem a bit far-fetched. Then again, it might not.

“I want to be the best player in college football this year, period,” Barden says. “The best player in college football.”

Why not?

When the Mustangs open Aug. 30 at San Diego State, the 6-foot-6, 227-pound senior will take the field as the active Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA) leader in career touchdowns, receiving yards and yards per catch.

After a 2007 in which he was named to every FCS All-America first team and was a Walter Payton Award finalist thanks to skying and muscling his way to 57 catches for 1,467 yards (a comical 25.7 average) and 18 touchdowns, Barden considered declaring his NFL Draft eligibility early.

Projected as a fifth-round pick at the time by the league’s advisory committee, he decided to return for one more year.

“There’s definitely not much I regret about the decision,” Barden says. “I’m happy to be back. Everybody seems to be taking the season really seriously.”

For Barden, the offseason (during which he and others partook in player-run, unofficial practices to maintain focus) was businesslike indeed.

In June, he worked out at Elite Athletics, a training facility in Westlake Village that was started by New Orleans Saints tight end Billy Miller. Since the facility’s full opening in February, several NFL players with Southern California roots have stopped by, including the Saints’ Bush, with whom Barden was put through drills by former LSU strength and conditioning coach Travelle Gaines.

“That was a real positive experience,” Barden reflects. “It gave me an opportunity to work with some people who’ve already been through some of the things I’m going through, and kind of give me a vision of some of the things I can see in my future.”

Often compared to similarly towering, imposing targets like Marques Colston and Vincent Jackson (both of whom also played at the FCS level), Barden went out for track at Cal Poly in March to improve his speed, clocking an 11.05-second time in the 100 meters and a 22.59 in the 200.

“I loved track,” Barden says. “There’s a lot I learned, but I wasn’t able to pull everything together in the time that I was there. I still think I left a lot on the table.”

Most draft sites – some of which chart him as a day-one possibility – estimate his all-important 40-yard dash time between 4.5 and 4.68 seconds.

“I still don’t think I’ve run my fastest 40, by a long shot,” says the 22-year-old rated as the country’s top “small school” talent and a “potential franchise player” by National Football Foundation contributor Josh Buchanan. “I like to think I play with above-average game speed. … I want to silence all the critics.”

Although Barden clarifies an understanding of the importance of the stopwatch result to NFL evaluators, he voices more concern over what he proves in pads than in shorts.

“I want people to look at my tape and say, ‘Wow, I don’t care what that number says – 4.3 or 4.5 – he’s killing everybody who’s running across from him,’ ” he says.

Among the most viciously departed last year were Texas State (which he burned for 207 receiving yards), Weber State (219) and Idaho State (268).

Those in FCS circles not only took note, but also looked for cover. In a forum topic at BobcatNation.com – a Montana State fan site – more than 50 posts banter back and forth about how rival Montana will defend Barden on Sept. 6.

“Do they have any corners that can cover and jump as high as him?” wonders “futurebobcat.”

Swiftly, “AlphaGriz1” answers, “No. He will own us once again,” before “crazycat” chimes in, “It’s a good year to stay away from Cal Poly.”

He was so dominant as a junior that another comparison looked more and more plausible.

“There’s this little thing we’ve got going on within the team, where we’ll put pictures together and try to find celebrities we look like, and I get Keyshawn Johnson a lot,” Barden laughs. “It’s only a matter of time before the buzz gets out that I look like him.”

Some onlookers haven’t been as confused to his identity, though.

“I get autograph requests a lot,” the business administration major says. “People will mail me little pictures in pre-stamped envelopes and things like that.”

At a position known for breeding larger-than-life egos, Barden has kept his teammates among his biggest fans.

“It’s a blessing to have him,” says Jonathan Dally, the Mustangs’ senior, starting quarterback. “Aside from being a tremendous athlete, he’s just a great all-around guy. He’d give anyone on the team the shirt off his back.”

Even in the face of so much acclaim, Barden, the honoree of Facebook groups such as “Throw a Fade to Ramses Barden!!!,” “Ramses Barden is GOD” and “We Bow To Ramses,” doesn’t seem to be letting the spotlight make him into someone he’s not.

“It’s always fun to be liked and appreciated, but I don’t buy into it too much,” explains the Sporting News, Lindy’s, Phil Steele’s and Consensus Draft Services FCS preseason All-American who’s been featured as a “small college” diamond in the rough by newspapers as far away as The Courier of Houma, La. “It’s not like I can go downtown and everyone’s going to buy me free everything and whatnot. That’s not the case – I still have to wait in line with everyone else.”

Wherever Barden’s line may lead, entering the next level from a perceived “small school” won’t be anything new.

Hailing from La Cañada Flintridge’s Flintridge Prep, which was a CIF-Southern Section Division XIII high school playing eight-man football until 1996, the Altadena native was invited on visits only to non-scholarship programs Penn and San Diego before choosing Cal Poly.

“I could’ve walked on at other places, but (Cal Poly) wanted me and I wanted to be a part of this system,” Barden recollects. “I thought this was the highest place as far as who was really interested in seeing me play and really wanted me.”

That intrigue soon turned into gratitude.

“We knew we had something special early,” Mustangs head coach Rich Ellerson says. “Once he got here we thought, ‘Woo, this is going to have a happy ending.’ … I remember his freshman year (assistant coaches) going, ‘Holy cow! Who is that?’ ”

To fill out his frame, the 2003 Cal-Hi Sports Small Schools Athlete of the Year redshirted upon arriving at Cal Poly in 2004.

“We were fortunate to run into him,” Mustangs offensive coordinator Ian Shields says. “He fell off the radar for some people. When we got him, he came here as a tall, gangly kid, and he’s obviously developed.”

Barden made the adjustment a quick one.

“We all knew the kind of talent he was as soon as he got here, not only because of his physical attributes, but above the neck as well,” Shields says. “He gets things – he’s a fast learner.”

Last year gave those who passed more reason to wish for a recruiting do-over, as Barden was the definitive threat for a unit that finished behind only national champion Appalachian State in total offense.

Although the Mustangs missed the playoffs by going 7-4, their four losses came by a combined 26 points, and 10 returning starters from that powder-keg offense have led to several top-15 preseason rankings, peaking at No. 6 by USA Today Sports Weekly (which named Barden as one of 10 FCS “players to watch”).

“We’ve got all the pieces to do whatever we want,” Barden says. “Expectations are as high as they’ve ever been. I would love to see my teammates receive some attention and success beyond this season, and be able to play football as long as they can.”

Barden jokes that one of them – senior wide receiver and fellow All-Great West Conference Team member Tre’dale Tolver – was a tad tardy in delivering a football-related pursuit dear to the heart of nearly any fun-loving college student like Barden – the latest “Madden” video game.

“Tre’dale was supposed to get it this year – it was his turn to buy it,” Barden explains.

Likely on the same shelf will be “NCAA Football ’09,” whose cover is singularly graced by former Arkansas star Darren McFadden. That is, unless you know the right places to look on Facebook.

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