East Lansing — Mark Dantonio keeps talking about selling results, tweaking Michigan State’s chief rival as he touts his program’s rise to prominence.
But the Spartans coach is peddling opportunity as well, for players and coaches.
That was evident even in the dog days of August camp the past couple weeks. Not just in the weary smiles of some of the underclassmen chasing roles, but also in the raspy voice of assistant Harlon Barnett.
“I never yell and scream,” Barnett said, “so my voice is not used to that.”
It’s getting there, though. And in the process, that voice — no matter how it sounded after a late-morning practice across the street from Spartan Stadium — is carrying added weight this fall.
Barnett, an All-America defensive back at Michigan State in the late 1980s, is beginning his 12th season as a member of Dantonio’s staff, having spent three seasons with him at Cincinnati before joining him in East Lansing.
But with the departure of longtime defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi last winter — he took over at Pittsburgh — Barnett has added new titles and responsibilities. He’s the co-coordinator now along with linebackers coach Mike Tressel, another longtime lieutenant. And when Dantonio announced his staff changes days before Michigan State’s Cotton Bowl victory over Baylor, Barnett was named assistant head coach.
That’s the same title Narduzzi held his last two seasons with the Spartans. Barnett, who is in charge of the secondary, also is the one who’ll be calling the plays from the press box as Narduzzi did, though all parties involved insist what has always been a collaborative effort will continue as such.
Dantonio said he’d decided on this succession plan “probably a couple years ago” and he’s convinced it’ll work seamlessly because “there’s no egos involved.” Tressel, like Barnett, has been with him since he formed his first staff at Cincinnati in 2004.
“I think they get along very, very well with each other,” Dantonio said. “It’s a give-and-take type of thing. Both of them have been in leadership positions before. … Both are experts at what they’ve been coaching. They play off each other.”
And not surprisingly, they downplay their own importance as the fifth-ranked Spartans get ready to kick off a new season amid heightened expectations.
“It didn’t change a whole lot,” Barnett said. “We’re all still working together.”
Working hard, too, to reestablish the kind of defensive identity that helped make Narduzzi, with his uncommon fire and intensity, a sought-after candidate in recent years. And the kind of identity that could do the same for Tressel, a coaching legacy who won a national title at Ohio State with his uncle, Jim, and particularly for Barnett, a charismatic 48-year-old who played in the NFL for Bill Belichick and got his coaching start under Nick Saban.
Narduzzi may still be the leading candidate to eventually succeed Dantonio, who’ll turn 60 next spring but isn’t dropping any hints the end is near. Yet, if Michigan State can continue to build on its hard-earned defensive reputation, it’s not hard to envision Barnett being the guy.
Of course, that’s the least of Barnett’s concerns at the moment, with the opener at Western Michigan a week away and plenty of work yet to be done to prepare.
Michigan State again ranked in the top 10 nationally in total defense last season. Sacks and interceptions, too. But the Spartans, with their aggressive “press quarters” coverage scheme, also got exposed up by some of the top spread offenses. Oregon and Ohio State, the two teams that played for the national title, combined for 95 points against Michigan State. Baylor added 41 in a frenetic bowl.
And if you’re wondering how that sits with the Spartans, just listen to that raspy voice.
“Not acceptable,” Barnett said. “(The players) even think like that, which is a good thing. A dose of humble pie never hurt anybody. …
“But I’m gonna take you back further than that,” he continues, his voice rising as he talks about this program’s transformation. “How about Alabama 2010?”
That’d be the 2011 Capital One Bowl, a 49-7 beatdown by Saban & Co. that Dantonio politely termed a “reality check” at the time.
“We got our butt kicked, right?” Barnett said. “That’s when everything changed. Defensively, we’ve been a top defense the last four years. We talked about. ‘OK, y’all saw what that was like, y’all saw what they did. We want to be national champs?’ And guys have been putting in work ever since.”
Tests coming early, often
This fall, much of that work has been focused on Barnett’s specialty, the secondary, which also happens to be Dantonio’s area of expertise. The Spartans have lost a pair of first-round draft picks to the NFL the last two years in cornerbacks Darqueze Dennard and Trae Waynes, and injuries have played havoc there this summer as well.
Darian Hicks, the most experienced cornerback on the roster, has only just returned from a bout with mononucleosis, and now his replacement, senior Arjen Colquhoun, is sidelined with an undisclosed injury. That means redshirt freshman Vayante Copeland is likely to start the Sept. 3 opener opposite junior Demetrious Cox, with R.J. Williamson and Montae Nicholson at safety.
The schedule isn’t helping, either. Michigan State’s first two opponents, Western Michigan and Oregon, ranked in the top six nationally in pass efficiency in 2014, so the depth in that secondary will be tested early and often. So will the discipline, with Air Force’s triple-option threat up next Sept. 19.
“But that’s a good thing, too,” Barnett said, when asked about his defense getting tested immediately — and not just for starters. “Guys are really locked in. Waiting for the tap, and knowing, ‘I’m coming in.’”
Opportunity knocks. And as he noted with a smile, even the coaches can relate.
Michigan State at Western Michigan
Kickoff: 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 4, Waldo Stadium, Kalamazoo
Series: Michigan State leads 11-2 (Michigan State 26-13, Aug. 30, 2013)