In return to Michigan State, Harlon Barnett sees 'No Fly Zone' similarities in secondary
This isn’t exactly Harlon Barnett’s first rodeo.
After all, before becoming Florida State’s defensive coordinator in 2018, Barnett spent 11 seasons as part of Mark Dantonio’s staff at Michigan State, coaching the defensive backs the entire time while adding co-defensive coordinator duties from 2015-17 and serving as associate head coach in 2017.
So, when Barnett returned this season to coach cornerbacks as part of Mel Tucker’s staff, there were plenty of familiar faces.
“Once they found out I was coming back they did hit me up, some of the current and past guys,” Barnett said. “I was excited, they were excited and so we're looking forward to get this thing going.
“I bleed green and white. Anybody who knows me, knows that. So it's not like it's a foreign deal. I was gone for two years and now I'm back and really excited to be back.”
And he’s excited to be working with at least a couple of guys he’s coached in the past and an even bigger group of guys he recruited heavily to come to Michigan State.
Seniors Tre Person and Dominique Long, who have each played both cornerback and safety, as well as fourth-year junior cornerback Shakur Brown, all saw their first action with Barnett as their coach while cornerbacks Davion Williams, Chris Jackson and Kalon Gervin all joined the Spartans with plans to play for Barnett. It was the same for safeties Xavier Henderson and Michael Dowell.
Now, two years later, they’re all finally on the field together, getting ready to open the season in a little more than two weeks against Rutgers.
“I'm fortunate to know really all of them,” Barnett said. “Even though I left, I knew all those guys and helped bring most of them here. So I'm looking forward to getting out in the field and playing and seeing how they do in the real game.”
It’s a unique position for Barnett, to be sure. While Tucker declared every player was starting with a clean slate, Barnett — as well as safeties coach Mike Tressel and defensive line coach Ron Burton — have a history with most of the players on the roster. That means they know what each brings to the table.
For Barnett, though, the fact he was gone the past two seasons gives him a different perspective. One of the architects of Michigan State’s dominant defenses of the past that included a secondary that called itself the “No Fly Zone,” Barnett sees many of the same pieces on this roster.
“It’s exactly what I see,” Barnett said. “There’s some talent there. It’s not like there’s no talent.”
And Barnett would know. He coached seven MSU defensive backs that were selected in the NFL Draft, including two first-rounders with Darqueze Dennard going No. 24 overall to the Cincinnati Bengals in 2014 and Trae Waynes getting taken No. 11 by the Minnesota Vikings in 2015. Dennard, Waynes and safety Kurtis Drummond were All-Americans, while Dennard won the Thorpe Award as the nation's top defensive back.
Also, in his three seasons as co-coordinator, the Spartan defenses ranked in the top 25 in the nation in both scoring defense and rushing defense in 2015 and 2017.
Now, in his second stint as a coach — Barnett was a Rose Bowl-winning defensive back at MSU under George Perles — Barnett is focusing on the cornerback spot and he sees the makings of another talented group.
“I definitely see Shaq taking the next step,” Barnett said. “He’s a really good football player and I'm constantly talking about guys being complete corners, not cover corners. So, they can run, cover and tackle. That's what we're looking for. Dominique Long is a guy vying for a spot. Kalon Gervin, Chris Jackson, Julian Barnett Davion Williams — they're all really doing a good job trying to apply the techniques and coaching that we're giving them, and getting better every day. It’s a good group, and I'm fortunate to work with these guys.”
Brown has the most experience at corner, starting five games last season and on an inside track to start this season. After that, it’s quite the battle.
Long has played safety most of his career while standing out on special teams, with Gervin seeing plenty of action in a reserve role last season as a redshirt freshman. Jackson and Williams, classmates of Gervin’s, have seen less work, though Barnett feels Jackson could be ready to break out.
“You haven't seen Chris play much, but I recruited him so I know what he was and what he could do,” Barnett said. “He’s really doing a good job out there competing with those other guys.”
Barnett also sees plenty of upside in Julian Barnett, the sophomore who was recruited to Michigan State as one of the top corners in the country, but played wide receiver last season as a true freshman.
“We’ve got a little rust on him and we’ll shake it off,” Harlon Barnett said. “And he’s shaking it off and he's looking better and better each day. He is a natural, big corner, strong, can run, great ball skills, and really is a good football player. He’s really coming along here in the last several days as well.”
The wild card in the cornerback battle could be true freshman Angelo Grose. He enrolled early, and while spring practice was canceled because of COVID-19, Grose opened some eyes in the early winter conditioning.
It’s clear now the coaching staff is high on the four-star recruit.
“I was trying to keep that a secret,” Barnett joked. “He is a football player, a really good football player. I like him a lot, and he's gonna do a lot of great things here at Michigan State.”