East Lansing — When it comes to a football recruit being listed as an athlete, it often means the player could play any number of positions. It’s just a matter of finding the right spot.
That journey can be a quick one or one that takes a year or two — or longer. Take former Michigan State running back Jeremy Langford, who was listed as an athlete coming out of Westland John Glenn. He went from running back, to defensive back — where he scored his first touchdown — to wide receiver back to running back.
He finished in the top 10 in career rushing yards as a Spartan and second with 40 touchdowns while helping Michigan State win the Big Ten and the Rose Bowl in 2013.
For Julian Barnett, the quest might not be which position he plays, but how many.
“Just all over the place,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said when talking about the 2019 recruiting class that signed last week.
Officially, the Spartans list the Belleville standout as a cornerback, meaning that’s likely where he’ll get his first shot. But the recruiting rankings point out his versatility.
For a player who has seen action at cornerback, wide receiver, running back, safety and linebacker along with returning kicks, ranking him simply as an athlete was the easy choice. He was rated the No. 5 athlete in the nation by ESPN and No. 13 by Rivals.com. But he was also listed the top cornerback in the state and No. 10 in the nation by 247Sports.
Barnett also earned All-State honors from the Associated Press as a receiver and was named to The News’ Dream Team as a cornerback.
“Very excited about Julian,” Dantonio said. “Has the potential to be a contributor. I believe that's going to happen.”
That seems almost certain, at least as certain as it can be for a player who has yet to take a college snap. But Barnett, a four-star who is the second-highest ranked member of the class behind Belleville teammate Devontae Dobbs, seems a pretty good bet to follow in the footsteps of some other players who have seen action on both sides of the ball.
While others under Dantonio have moved around — most recently cornerback Justin Layne, who started at receiver before flipping to defense — the most notable was Tony Lippett.
Lippett started his career as a defensive back but soon moved to receiver, earning Big Ten Wide Receiver of the Year honors in 2014. He also started at cornerback the last two games of his senior season and was drafted in the fifth round as a defensive back by the Miami Dolphins.
Odds are, Barnett starts on defense. Any expansion of that role will depend on how quickly develops.
“That will be a tough one,” Dantonio said. “I think the key thing will be to teach him one side of the ball and implement him on the other. It's usually easier to teach a guy on the defensive side of the ball, implement him to the offense, rather than vice versa. We've done it both ways. It will be interesting. Probably based on more need and see how he sorts it all out.”
There will be opportunities for playing time on both sides of the ball. With Layne off to the NFL, the Spartans will be looking for a new starter opposite Josiah Scott. It won’t be easy for Barnett with the likes of Josh Butler, Tre Person and Shakur Brown, as well as Kalon Gervin and Davion Williams, who are finishing their freshman seasons.
On offense, the departure of Felton Davis III to the NFL creates some opportunity, but there’s plenty of depth behind Darrell Stewart Jr. and Cody White with the likes of Cam Chambers, Laress Nelson, C.J. Hayes and Brandon Sowards in the mix.
But Barnett will likely find a role somewhere for the Spartans, something that will become clearer as time passes.
“That's a tough question,” Dantonio said. “Probably have to ask me that in August. Based on when you watch the film, you could put him at either place. He could be a guy that could play either place early. He tackles extremely well, outstanding ball skills, he can run, he's long in the back end there in the secondary. On the flip side of that, you watch his tape, he makes some tremendous catches. Impact player on that side of the ball as well.”