When Xavier Henderson came to Michigan State after being recruited by Mike Tressel, he met Harlon Barnett, the purveyor of the “No-Fly-Zone” era of MSU football.
Barnett left shortly after Henderson came to campus to take a defensive coordinator job at Florida State but before his departure he said, “this isn’t goodbye, its see ya later” as Henderson told reporters last week.
Barnett wasn’t joking.
He’s back, to the place that he played for in the late 80s and coached at from 2007-2017.
Henderson desperately wanted to play for Barnett and was disappointed to see him go. Once Barnett broke the news that he was leaving for Florida State, he left the door open for a possible return — so he did.
“I was excited, they were excited (former and current) players and coaches,” Barnett said in a zoom call Thursday. “I bleed Green and White, anybody who knows me knows that. It’s not like its a foreign deal.”
Barnett said that he excited to be back after a two-year stint at FSU. The place that raised him into a man from 1986-89 as a player has now become his home once again.
Barnett was the defensive backs coach during an era of MSU football with eventual NFL first-round draft picks Darqueze Dennard and Trae Waynes leading the back four during their prime years.
This season, he and defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton must work to replace Josiah Scott with young DBs in Shakur Brown, Kalon Gervin, Chris Jackson, Angelo Grose and Dominique Long.
“Definitely see Shak (Shakur Brown) taking the next step,” Barnett said Thursday. “I constantly talk about guys being complete corners, not cover corners, so they can run, cover and tackle, that’s what we’re looking for.”
Barnett said that the DB room is doing a good job at trying to get better and he is "fortunate" to work with guys so driven.
In 2018 with Florida State as the DC and DBs coach, he directed a defense that ranked second in the ACC and 20th in the NCAA overall, holding opponents to only 3.52 yards per rush. In fourth-round defense, The Seminoles ranked second in the ACC and 17th in the NCAA and also ranked fifth in the conference in rushing defense, third-down defense and passes intercepted, during the same season.
‘He’s like a brother’
It isn’t the same, no Mark Dantonio around feels different for Barnett. But this year’s talent is reminiscent of the 2009 roster, he said, and of course, he has his “brother” Mike Tressel too.
“It feels great,” Barnett said about working with Tressel again. “Mike's like a brother, I told him years ago, I mean we were together for so long, he and I, and Pat (Pat Narduzzi) back in those days. I said, ‘We’re connected for life man! We’re brothers’.”
For five of his last seven seasons, Barnett's defense put the Spartans in the FBS Top 25 for pass efficiency — a feat that the defense hopes to get back to.
“(Barnett) had told me and Kalon Gervin, ‘This isn't goodbye, it's see you later’,” Henderson said to reporters last week. ”And I was like, ‘whatever coach,’ but he ended up coming back so it's funny how things work. So it's been real good having both great coaches in our ear. Both (Tressel and Barnett) were defensive coordinators, so it's been real good.
Tressel and his relationship, Barnett said, is still wonderful, even after a few years apart.
“We just work well together, we communicate,” Barnett said. “Our guys communicate and we’re just trying to get the best out of everybody that we coach and win football games.”
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