East Lansing — When Julian Barnett arrived on Michigan State’s campus last summer he did so as one of the top-rated cornerbacks in the nation.
Throughout preseason camp, the former Belleville standout worked exclusively at the cornerback position as the Spartans sorted out a talented depth chart that included junior Josiah Scott but were attempting to replace Justin Layne, who left early for the NFL.
Barnett seemed like he’d get a shot to play, but just before the season, coach Mark Dantonio approached him about flipping to the offense to play wide receiver. Barnett had played both ways in high school, so it wasn’t a significant move.
However, it did prove to be made out of necessity as freshman Tre’Von Morgan was lost for the season during camp and sophomore Jalen Nailor went out in Week 2 and missed nine straight games. Fifth-year senior Darrell Stewart also missed the final four games with a foot injury.
“He was recruited here as a corner, he has those type of skills,” Dantonio said. “But out of necessity, we had to play him (at wide receiver) this year.”
That necessity might not exist by next fall, though, as Michigan State gets leading receiver Cody White back along with freshman Tre Mosley, who had 17 catches in the final five games. Add in four freshmen receivers signed during last week’s early signing period and it could open the door for Barnett to flip back to defense, or, perhaps, be the next two-way player for the Spartans.
It’s something Dantonio has been open to in the past as Layne saw action on both sides of the ball in his final season while Tony Lippett did the same thing in 2014, starting on both sides near the end of the season.
“It gives us the versatility, I think, to play him both ways,” Dantonio said. “I don't think he'll leave totally wide receiver, but there's a possibility he could play both ways, much like some of our other guys we've had here in the past. I think that makes him more versatile.”
Barnett played in all 12 games this season at wide receiver, starting twice. He caught 13 passes for 182 yards and carried the ball twice for 19 yards.
As Michigan State prepares to take on Wake Forest Friday in the Pinstripe Bowl, it could offer a glimpse at how Barnett might be used next season, and Barnett is open to whatever the coaching staff has in mind.
“Wherever they need me that's where I'll play,” Barnett said after the victory over Maryland to cap the regular season. “If I need to play multiple positions I'm over there. If I need to do it, if they need me over there, I got it.”
As a senior at Belleville in 2018, Barnett had 39 tackles, six sacks and two interceptions. He also caught 22 passes for 425 yards and eight touchdowns while running for 250 yards and three touchdowns.
Those numbers sure look like those of a player who can excel on both sides of the ball. And while Barnett admits his first love is defense, he just wants to be on the field.
“I’m a defensive player in my heart,” Barnett said. “I love defense so much. I love contact. That’s why I play football, because I love this contact sport. At the same time, on offense, I get the glory of scoring, making big plays and stuff like that. Even though you can do those on defense, too, it’s a different feeling on offense.
“But I just want to play football. So, if they need me on offense or defense, I’m there.”
New Era Pinstripe Bowl
MICHIGAN STATE VS. WAKE FOREST
Kickoff: 3:20 p.m. Friday, Yankee Stadium, New York
TV/radio: ESPN/760 AM
Records: Michigan State 6-6, Wake Forest 8-4
Line: Michigan State by 3.5