CLEMSON — It's difficult for Billy Napier to keep from breaking into a wide, proud smile whenever Durrell Barry's name comes up.

"He's a guy I'll talk about the rest of my life," said Napier, Clemson's tight ends coach. "A guy you get into coaching to help."

Barry, a fourth-year junior who played at Fort Dorchester High School, is finally realizing his potential on the football field after years of frustration and strife with his coaches. He started last week against The Citadel, and Napier is positively giddy about the future.

Yet that's only part of the story, because Barry has overcome more than mere obscurity on a depth chart. He has also managed to pick himself up from a certified wreck of a family life.

"If I would have come in here and just had somebody like a father figure or somebody who actually knew what was going on, someone who had the time to sit down and get me right, I think it would have been different," he said.

Barry wasn't the typical senior at Fort Dorchester in 2003. For most of that year, he lived with his girlfriend in a tiny apartment and supported himself by working nights and weekends in the meat department at Sam's Wholesale.

He said he moved out of his mother's home when he got into a fight with her live-in boyfriend. A boyfriend who happened to be one of Barry's coaches at Fort Dorchester.

The cops showed up. Barry said he asked his mother to choose her boyfriend or her son. She chose the former, and Barry said they haven't had much of a relationship since.

"I never wanted to leave her, because that's the only mom you get," he said.

Barry's mother, Shirley Birch, blamed the tumult with her son on his being "hard-headed." She said she never asked him to leave home in high school.

"I think we have very similar personalities, and we clash," said Birch, who lives in Summerville.

Barry's father is in the military and stationed in Texas. Barry said he respects him because he takes care of his 14-year-old brother and 13-year-old sister, but the relationship doesn't go beyond the occasional phone call or text message.

Barry says his real parents are two people he befriended while at Fort Dorchester: Chris Hollowell, a police officer who worked at the school, and his wife, Lori.

They were the only members of his "family" to attend Clemson's season opener against Alabama in Atlanta.

Barry, 23, has a 3-year-old son named Jalen. And he says the remarkable transformation he's orchestrated over the past eight months has stemmed in large part from the motivation to give his son something he never had.

"I hope and I pray that I can do everything right so I can be able to provide for him," he said. "Everything is just starting to work itself out."

Over Barry's first three years in a Clemson uniform, he was what Napier termed a "misfit." In 2003, Tigers coaches took a chance on his raw athletic ability after they saw him dominate a playoff game at Fort Dorchester.

Barry didn't qualify academically to play in 2004 and spent a year at Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy. He redshirted in 2005 and played sparingly in 2006 and 2007.

Off the field, he was a persistent nightmare for Clemson coaches. He routinely fell asleep in meetings. He'd miss study hall and sessions with tutors. In the spring of 2007, he was on the verge of flunking out before Napier pulled himself off the road recruiting and spent three days helping him get his academics back in order.

Everything began to change last January, when the team met for the final time after its bowl loss to Auburn. In separate meetings with Napier and coach Tommy Bowden, Barry was told to transform or transfer.

"It almost got taken away from me," he said. "Them saying I could leave and go somewhere else — when you sit there and think about that, those words are almost scary."

Barry made the first impression on his coaches by excelling during the grueling winter "mat drills" regimen, in which players are pushed to nauseating extremes in a series of early-morning sessions. Over the summer, Barry and fellow tight end Michael Palmer set a high standard during voluntary workouts.

Once practice began in August, a kid who Napier said used to be a "nuisance" in meetings was now staying awake and paying attention.

"I had notebooks out," Barry said. "I wrote down every play. I'd draw up every play. I went home and ate good. Got to sleep early. Just tried to keep myself in the best shape. No fast food. Just changed my whole diet."

His grades have also changed for the better. What were once D's and F's are now A's and B's. He's taking an online class from a nearby technical college with hopes of graduating with a sociology degree in May.

And now, after all the frustration and heartache on and off the football field thus far, Barry can look ahead knowing better and more rewarding days await.

"I owe it to coach Bowden and coach Napier for that second chance," he said. "I'm also thankful to everyone in Charleston who's behind me and praying for me.

"Anybody can turn their back and try to go do something somewhere else. Or you can be the bigger man and step up and take the challenge and work hard."

Said Napier: "I'm as proud of that kid as I am of any player, just because he's overcome. He's one of those guys that isn't supposed to make it. He was on a path to being on the streets. And now he's as pleasant as you can be.

"He's a product of buying in, man. Just buying in."

Practice notes

-- It didn't take long for Da'Quan Bowers to snag a starting role.

Defensive line coach Chris Rumph said Bowers, a freshman from Bamberg, will start ahead of Kevin Alexander on Saturday against North Carolina State.

"For the past two weeks, he's been performing the best, and he deserves the start," Rumph said. "I've got to keep food on my table, and right now he's providing a little meat to go with the potatoes."

Alexander has moved to "bandit" end, where he could start in Ricky Sapp's spot. Sapp missed last week's game with a severely bruised knee, and he's done very little this week in practice.

--Bowden said he's planning to redshirt tailback Andre Ellington (Berkeley High) unless injury strikes at the position. Bowden said he was close to playing Ellington against The Citadel but was talked out of it by his staff.

Bowden also said freshman Dwayne Allen will redshirt barring injury at the tight end position.

--Starting linebacker Brandon Maye missed Wednesday's practice with a stomach bug but should be OK Saturday, linebackers coach David Blackwell said.