Michigan State brings back Harlon Barnett, names Jay Johnson offensive coordinator

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — Harlon Barnett is back.

The former Michigan State assistant under Mark Dantonio and Rose Bowl champion as a player was hired by Mel Tucker on Thursday to be the Spartans’ defensive backs coach.

Harlon Barnett is returning to the Michigan State football program as its defensive backs coach.

“I’ve known Harlon Barnett for more than 20 years,” Tucker said in a statement. “He’s a fantastic coach and recruiter, and really connects with his players. He’s a man of character and family is very important to him. He’s a true Spartan and we’re happy to have him back here in East Lansing.”

Barnett returns to Michigan State after spending the last two seasons as defensive coordinator at Florida State. Barnett was Dantonio’s associate head coach in 2017 and was co-defensive coordinator with Mike Tressel from 2015-17. In this three seasons, Michigan State ranked in the FBS Top 25 in both scoring defense and rushing defense in 2015 and 2017.

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Barnett was Michigan State’s defensive backs coach from 2007-14 after he served in the same role for three seasons with Dantonio at Cincinnati.

The announcement of Barnett’s hiring came just hours after the Spartans announced they had hired Jay Johnson as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. Johnson spent last season as the offensive coordinator at Colorado as part of Tucker’s staff.

“Jay is an experienced play caller and an expert quarterbacks coach,” Tucker said. “He has a very innovative offensive mind. I was with Jay when he was at Georgia and really got to know him well there. He’s had success in the Big Ten before, calling plays at Minnesota. He runs a multiple offense with an emphasis on physicality, and he’s an aggressive play caller.”

Johnson, 50, has been an offensive coordinator at four different schools, including Colorado, Minnesota, Louisiana and Southern Mississippi and has also coached quarterbacks, running backs and tight ends. Before Colorado, Johnson was an offensive analyst at Georgia in 2017-18, the same time Tucker served as the Bulldogs’ defensive coordinator. Georgia reached the CFP National Championship game in 2017 with the offense scoring 35.4 points a game. The Bulldogs had the top-ranked rushing offense in the SEC in each of the two seasons Johnson was there and in 2018, they scored 37.9 points a game, which ranked second in the SEC and 14th in the nation.

Johnson spent the 2016 season at Minnesota under then head coach Tracy Claeys, as the Golden Gophers ranked fourth in the Big Ten at 29.3 points a game while finishing 9-4 with a win over Washington State in the Holiday Bowl. Johnson also spent five seasons as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Louisiana after he was the quarterbacks coach at Central Michigan in 2010.

Barnett’s name had been floating around since Florida State fired head coach Willie Taggart in November. Barnett was at the Michigan State-Maryland basketball game on Saturday, and now gets to work rebuilding a secondary that was one of the best in the nation under his guidance.

The Spartans routinely finished among the best passing defenses in the nation under Barnett and nine MSU defensive backs coached by Barnett were selected in the NFL Draft, including two first-rounders — Darqueze Dennard in 2014 and Trae Waynes in 2015. Thirteen of Barnett’s defensive backs have been invited to the NFL Combine, and he coached three All-Americans at MSU (Dennard, Waynes, Kurtis Drummond) and three Thorpe Award semifinalists (Dennard, Waynes, Otis Wiley). A unanimous All-American, Dennard became the first Spartan to win the Thorpe Award, given to the nation's best defensive back, in 2013.

The hiring of Barnett and Johnson means Tucker has now hired six assistant coaches with four more to go to fill out his 10-person staff. 

On Wednesday, former Michigan State star Courtney Hawkins was hired to coach wide receivers while earlier this week Chris Kapilovic was hired as offensive line coach and run-game coordinator after coaching the offensive line at Colorado last season. Last week, Tressel and Ron Burton — two members of former coach Mark Dantonio’s staff — were retained. Burton is coaching the defensive line, while Tressel’s role is still being determined after he served as defensive coordinator the past two seasons.

Tucker has been on the job for a little more than a week after being named as Dantonio’s successor on Feb. 12. Dantonio stepped down after 13 seasons as the winningest coach in Michigan State history.


Twitter: @mattcharboneau