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East Lansing — Co-defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett has an advantage over the rest of the assistants as Michigan State prepares to face Alabama in the Cotton Bowl.

That’s because, along with coach Mark Dantonio, Barnett speaks a special language.

“Coach Dantonio and I both speak Sabanism,” Barnett joked.

That is, they understand how Alabama coach Nick Saban operates, maybe better than most.

Dantonio was one of Saban’s assistants at Michigan State from 1995-99, but Barnett understands Saban on a different level — as a player.

Saban coached defensive backs and was defensive coordinator during Barnett’s first two years as a player at Michigan State, and later in the NFL (Barnett played for the Browns three seasons, two of which Saban was defensive coordinator).

Barnett credits Saban with not only instilling his philosophy of playing the secondary but helping him get his start in coaching.

“The reason why I have this job right now is because of that, because Coach Dantonio and I both speak Sabanism,” Barnett said. “That’s how I got the job at the University of Cincinnati initially with Coach Dantonio, and been with him ever since.

“The basis of my foundational teaching and how I teach is from what he’s taught me.”

That foundation not only has produced two first-rounders (Darqueze Dennard and Trae Waynes), but 22 players have earned all-Big Ten honors under Barnett at Michigan State, including seven first-teamers. Two have been named the Big Ten defensive back of the year (Dennard in 2013, safety Kurtis Drummond in 2014).

Dennard, Waynes and Drummond also have been named All-Americans, while Dennard won the Thorpe Award (top defensive back) in 2013.

It’s been quite the run for Barnett, who won a Rose Bowl as a player in 1988, matched as a coach in 2014, and now has a chance to be part of a national championship team at his alma mater.

“I never envisioned even coming to Michigan State,” Barnett said. “Wasn’t until almost my senior year, where I got a chance to go play college football.

“And then to come back, never even anticipated that, ever even being a coach for that matter, so it’s been awesome.”

One thing Barnett didn’t learn from Saban was his affection for rap music. He even made up a rap following his Rose Bowl victory in 1988 about winning a national championship. It’s something he has shared with his players.

Any chance that rap becomes public?

“No, no, no, no,” Barnett said with a laugh.

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/mattcharboneau

Cotton Bowl

Alabama vs. Michigan State

Kickoff: 8 p.m. Dec. 31, AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas

TV/radio: ESPN/WJR

Records: No. 2 Alabama 12-1, No. 3 Michigan State 12-1

Line: Alabama by 10

Series: Alabama leads 1-0

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