When former Michigan State football coach Mark Dantonio stepped down on Feb. 4, assistant coach Mike Tressel was appointed as interim head coach. There was talk that Tressel would remain there, at least for the 2020 season. While the search stretched on, there were players and fans calling for Harlon Barnett to return to the Spartans from Florida State and assume the head coaching role. Both Tressel and Barnett, head coaching candidates, came back to the Spartans, neither as head coach.
The experienced pair have worked together for over 14 years and return to the Spartans as safeties and defensive back coaches, looking to bring a return of the famed "No Fly Zone," a defensive backfield that produced future NFL first-round picks Darqueze Dennard and Trae Waynes.
“We are one unit, so the biggest thing is going to be the strategy of when we’re together, when we’re apart, making sure our guys still communicate,” Tressel said. “I know the ‘No Fly Zone’ wants to still put themselves as one position group, and that’s how Harlon (Barnett) and I want them to look at themselves too. They’re still one position group, but we have the opportunity for them to focus on their craft a little bit more.”
The defensive backfield will be learning from a tight-knit pair. Barnett and Tressel’s relationship is one of the reasons the defensive coaching staff shook out the way it did. After 14 years of work, the duo will get a chance to work right with one another as a cohesive unit, looking to make the Spartans' secondary the best in the nation.
“That was kind of why we actually ended up this way - because of Mike's and I relationship, working together, we've worked together for 14 straight years. We know one another, we feed off of one another,” Barnett said.
“I think our strengths and weaknesses work well off of one another," Barnett said. There's no ego there. Mike's like a brother to me; I remember saying that to those guys after we've worked together so long – I think about the Rose Bowl year in 2013. I remember telling (former MSU defensive coordinator) Pat (Narduzzi) and Mike and them: you know Mike and I connected for life; we're like brothers now. ... We had coached together for so long so it's been a smooth transition."
Tressel echoed the importance of their off-field relationship.
“Man, absolutely fired up to have Harlon (Barnett) back and to be directly working with him,” Tressel said, “He’s an outstanding human being first, he’s an outstanding coach. ... We’re like brothers and really do play off each other’s strengths and work really well together.”
The pair have coordinated defenses. Now they have a chance to take a more focused approach to the Spartan secondary.
“Well I really think there’s a huge difference in terms of focus on technique, focus on the details,” Tressel said. “There’s no doubt when one person’s running four different people, four different positions, regardless if it’s defensive backs or whether it’s the linebackers, there’s times when certain guys are just sitting there listening, trying to stay locked in and they’re focused on another position. Now, we’re able to stay focused a lot more, there’s a lot more attention, a lot more detail to each guy.”
Opportunity to focus on the details is something Tressel has tried to emphasize for years. He knows that the big plays come from a collapse in the secondary, and over the past few years he has paid more and more attention to those explosions. Now he has a chance to make that his main focus.
"The last few years coordinating, the back-end is where you give up the big plays, so that has to be your focus," Tressel said. "I’ve really transitioned my focus over the last few years to pay a little bit more of attention and have a little bit more game plan thoughts, a little bit more adjustments, a little more technique in the back-end, knowing that’s where the explosives happen. I’m excited to be able to grow a little bit myself working with the safeties.”
Barnett plans to focus on technique in his corners. He knows the key to a strong defense is great corners and to return to the glory days of the "No Fly Zone," they need to shut down the edges.
“I tell the guys this and you can check for history sake, but I tell the corners this – in order to be a great defense, you got to have two great corners," Barnett said. "Most of all, you have two great corners on the team at any level, high school, college, pro, your defense has a chance to be really, really good because when you can lock down the edge.”
The second half of the secondary will rely on leadership. Tressel has seen confidence develop in some of his key players last season and will instill that into the rest of his players to point them in the right direction.
“I’m excited about the group, I really am,” Tressel said, “Tre Person is a senior right now, he’s got a lot of experience and you can see a renewed excitement and a renewed sense of urgency out of him. He’s played some good ball for us, and we’re hoping he can really step into David’s (Dowell) spot without missing a beat. Xavier (Henderson) has come a long way in terms of confidence, I think if you watch our season last year in order, you’d see the last four or five games, he really started to pick up his play, and that came with his confidence and with his leadership. So between Tre (Person) and Xavier (Henderson), there’s really a lot of leadership in that group that’s pointing everybody in the right direction.”
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Each coach's philosophy and brotherhood have allowed them to mesh well for over a decade. Now is their chance to put that same energy into their secondary. Barnett’s wants to be great for years to come and with the pair Head Coach Mel Tucker assigned to the secondary, the best years of the ‘No Fly Zone’ may be yet to come.
“I'm already talking to the guys like this, putting that in their minds, that hey, if we're excellent at corner, we're going to be an excellent defense,” Barnett said.
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