Harlon Barnett knows a little something about developing defensive backs.
During his first go-around at Michigan State, Barnett helped three players earn All-American status and had three become finalists for the Jim Thorpe Award, given to the top defensive back in the country.
Now back with the Spartans as their cornerbacks coach after spending the last two seasons as defensive coordinator at Florida State, Barnett is looking to develop the next set of players to make up what was once called the “No Fly Zone,” a nickname given to the Spartans’ secondary during its best years under Barnett.
“I see a good room where I'm working with some guys that have the ability to get it done,” Barnett said. “It's a matter of coaching them up, building their confidence and knowing that they can get it done.”
While Barnett coached all the defensive backs in his last stint at Michigan State, he’ll be focusing on cornerbacks as part of Mel Tucker’s staff. Former coordinator Mike Tressel will handle the safeties, allowing Barnett to work on finding the next Darqueze Dennard or Trae Waynes, two former first-round NFL Draft picks who each earned All-American honors. Dennard won the Thorpe Award in 2013 and Waynes was a finalist in 2014.
“I'm very fortunate in a lot of ways to be able to have the corners themselves,” Barnett said. “I’ve had the entire room my entire career and corners and safeties do different things. Now to specifically be able to hone in on just what the corners do and their techniques and what they're supposed to do technique-wise and really locking in on it and being efficient in everything that they do, I’m excited about it. Corners are very unique position.”
The Spartans have lost their share of experience at cornerback with the graduation of Josh Butler and the fact Josiah Scott left early for the NFL.
However, they’re not lacking in potential, aided by the move back to defense for Julian Barnett. One of the top cornerbacks in the nation when he was recruited out of Belleville, Barnett played wide receiver as a freshman in 2019 but has shifted back to the other side of the ball.
“I think he can be an excellent cornerback,” Harlon Barnett said. “He’s long, he’s big, he can run and that's what he was recruited to do anyhow. I know he's happy to be back on that side of the ball, and I expect big things from Julian.”
Even with Julian Barnett in line to see significant playing time, the competition will likely be intense. Shakur Brown has seen the most extensive playing time, starting five of 19 games in his career. As a redshirt junior, he’ll be counted on heavily.
After that, it’s wide open. Kalon Gervin started once last season while fellow redshirt sophomores Davion Williams and Chris Jackson are still in the mix. The Spartans also landed Angelo Grose, a four-star cornerback who enrolled early, in their quest to be the backbone of the defense.
“For us to be a great defense, you’ve got to have two great corners,” Harlon Barnett said. “Most times if you have two great corners on the defense at any level — high school, college, pro — your defense has a chance to be really, really good. When you can lock down the edges there is so much other stuff that you're able to do with the other nine guys on the field.
“I’m already talking to the guys like that, putting that in their minds that, ‘Hey, if we’re excellent at corner, we’re going to be an excellent defense.’ … They all know that they have opportunities to go out and show what they can do. We still say the best players play. We want to be great at corner for this year’s team and beyond.”