Harlon Barnett brings attacking defense to Florida State

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Harlon Barnett wasn’t looking for a job when Florida State knocked on his door.

He was happy coaching at his alma mater, Michigan State. Life was good, especially after the Spartans bounced back from a 3-9 season in 2016 to a 10-3 mark last year.

But just minutes after a Holiday Bowl win over Washington State, Barnett got a text from an old friend. It wasn’t a congratulatory text, it was about a job interview. Barnett’s celebration turned to curiosity as he read the message from an old coaching friend, Raymond Woodie, who had joined coach Willie Taggart’s staff at Florida State.

“He texts me, ‘Call me. Important,’” Barnett said. “I still got it on my phone. I’m never going to erase it.”

The text set the wheels in motion for Barnett, a seven-year NFL veteran who said he prayed for days on whether he should leave Michigan State. It also meant ending a 14-year association with Mark Dantonio dating back to when Dantonio hired him at Cincinnati in 2004 and then at Michigan State in 2007.

Barnett’s defenses have traditionally been among the nation’s best — Michigan State was No. 7 in the Football Bowl Subdivision in total defense (297.6 yards per game) in 2017. In the end, Barnett felt the chance to have full control of the Florida State defense was too good to pass up.

“I was co-defensive coordinator up at Michigan State and defensive coordinator here,” Barnett said. “Just a chance for me to stretch myself.”

Florida State’s defense isn’t a rebuilding job but it challenge Barnett’s abilities. The Seminoles return just four defensive players after safety Derwin James left early for the NFL draft. While Florida State allowed just 21 points per game in 2017, there were late-game defensive breakdowns that contributed to losses to North Carolina State, Louisville and Miami as well as a crushing 35-3 defeat at Boston College.

Taggart has brought a different vibe to Florida State, sparking enthusiasm for the opener against Virginia Tech on Sept. 3 with his “Lethal Simplicity” by implementing a no-huddle offense. But luring Barnett to Tallahassee is as vital as any move he has made.

Barnett inherits a group loaded with talent — led by defensive end Brian Burns, defensive tackle Demarcus Christmas and cornerback Levonta Taylor — but also questions about who will step in at linebacker after losing three seniors.

His defensive scheme is also pretty simple, focusing on an attacking four-man defensive front and letting corners play man-to-man.

“It’s simple and that’s the way coach Taggart wants it,” said Woodie, a linebackers coach under Barnett. “His big thing is being able to stop the run. As a defensive coordinator, you’ve got to be able to do that and everything else is you react to the pass.”

Players have embraced the new scheme, which they feel frees them up to use their natural ability and go off instincts. The Seminoles return to a 4-3 defense after four seasons of running a 3-4 under previous coordinator Charles Kelly.

“This defense is focusing on attacking,” Burns said. “Everything is all in your face. Last year was kind of conservative. But the way I see the defense now, we’re going after it.”

The 51-year old Barnett has played for Bill Belichick, Bill Parcells, Dennis Green and Tony Dungy. He joined Nick Saban’s staff at LSU as a graduate assistant in 2003. Saban and Barnett’s relationship goes back 27 years to when Saban was Cleveland’s defensive coordinator.

Barnett has never had full control of the defense before, even after more than a decade at Michigan State under Dantonio. But Barnett is widely respected for his positive attitude as well as his nasty defenses.

“I think he’ll fit in just perfect,” said Pittsburgh coach Pat Narduzzi, who was an assistant at Cincinnati (2004-06) and Michigan State (2007-14) with Barnett. “He’s got a great personality. He’ll keep it simple enough so those guys aren’t thinking and they’re playing fast. I think they’ll like the style of defense he runs.”

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