'I'm an athlete': Michigan State freshman Barnett will play wherever best suits team

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — The question was simple and the answer just as easy.

For Michigan State freshman Julian Barnett, it was simply about playing football and winning games.

“They just gave me the choice,” Barnett said after practice on Monday. “The said, ‘Do (you) want to help out the team on offense or defense?’”

It was a quick response from Barnett.

Julian Barnett was the eighth-rated cornerback in the nation when he arrived at Michigan State, but his athleticism has him playing offense for the Spartans.

“Wherever I can help the team most is where I want to go,” Barnett said.

And so, the eighth-ranked cornerback in the nation in the 2019 recruiting class according to 247Sports began his first preseason camp as a Spartan playing offense.

On the surface, it might seem like a bit of a surprise. But it doesn’t take long to realize Barnett is the type of player that will likely make an impact wherever he lines up. And with Michigan State possessing a deep and talented secondary but looking at an offense that struggled to score points last season, the move seems like a simple one.

After all, it’s not like the offensive side of the ball is foreign to Barnett. ESPN ranked him the No. 1 athlete in the Midwest coming out of Belleville High after he played multiple positions for the Tigers. He had 22 receptions for 425 yards and eight touchdowns as a senior while adding 250 yards rushing on 20 carries with three touchdowns.

Barnett is doing his best to translate those numbers to Michigan State.

“I’m loving it,” Barnett said. “It’s actually been fun. I’m getting up to speed with everything and playing fast.”

Even coming to Michigan State as a highly rated defensive back, Barnett isn’t putting any limits on what his role might be as a true freshman.

“I don’t envision a role right now,” he said. “I just envision me learning everything, getting acclimated to the system and helping out wherever we need.”

That approach — one that focuses more on the big picture and less on individual goals — hasn’t been lost on his teammates.

“The most impressive part about him is his desire to learn,” sophomore quarterback Rocky Lombardi said. “I come up and talk to him and he knows the playbook better than I would think a freshman would know it. For him to be in that state of mind already, like, ‘I want to learn. What are you seeing here?’ He started talking about Tulsa, like, ‘What do you read here on this coverage?’ I love his desire to learn.”

That desire comes even as Barnett begins his first season as one of the Spartans’ most highly anticipated new players.

Along with high school teammate Devontae Dobbs, an offensive lineman, Barnett was sought after by most of the country’s top programs. Alabama, Clemson, Georgia, Ohio State — they all wanted Barnett. But he opted to come to Michigan State, a team that has produced its share of top defensive backs.

But, instead of getting on the field right away on defense, it appears offense will be his first chance. And if you think that disappoints defensive coordinator Mike Tressel, think again.

“If he's making plays you'll see a sense of happiness,” Tressel said. “That's as we want — him to be in a position to make plays.”

The Spartans are doing their best to put Barnett in that position and taking a winding path is something that has happened plenty at Michigan State.

Tony Lippett played both sides of the ball early in his career before becoming the Big Ten Receiver of the Year in 2014 then closing that season with a couple of starts at cornerback. And Jeremy Langford, whose 1,522 rushing yards in 2014 rank fifth in program history, scored his first career touchdown as a defensive back when he returned a fumble for a score.

“Coach has said numerous times and of course over the years you know, use him or lose him,” Tressel said. “And you look at a guy like that, or a Tony Lippett or Jeremy Langford or guys like that, you try to find out where they're going to be able to get on the field NOW and where they end up, who knows?

“I'm not worried about that. I want to see him making plays now.”

There’s a decent chance that Barnett will see both sides of the ball at some point in his career, possessing the skill to truly excel at multiple positions.

For now, though, he’ll focus on being a receiver. He’s leaned heavily on veterans like Darrell Stewart and Cody White while the quarterbacks have also been helping Barnett find his way.

“Rocky, Brian (Lewerke), Theo (Day), Darrell, Cody,” Barnett said. “Speedy (Jalen Nailor) they all help me out. Even C.J. Hayes. Even though I’m a freshman they work with me. If I get something wrong, they pull me to the side and tell me what to do.”

The simplest think Barnett needs to do is make plays. He seems primed to do that on offense and could, someday, do it on defense, too.

The reason is simple.

“I’m an athlete,” he said. “I’m an athlete.”


Twitter: @mattcharboneau