January 8, 2018 - by
Taggart Gets His Man In Harlon Barnett
  • TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – When he was introduced as Florida State’s head coach, Willie Taggart said he wanted a defense loaded with “bad asses” and “war daddies” – think Derrick Brooks, Peter Boulware or Ron Simmons.

A few weeks later, Taggart has found a defensive coordinator who suits that vision:

The man delivering that hit is Harlon Barnett, back then a Michigan State defensive back who would go on to enjoy a seven-year run in the NFL before embarking on a career in coaching.

Florida State on Sunday officially announced that Barnett, who had served as an assistant at his alma matter since 2007 and as co-defensive coordinator since 2015, had been hired as the Seminoles’ next defensive coordinator.

Barnett is the program’s fifth defensive coordinator since 1984, when the venerable Mickey Andrews first arrived in Tallahassee.

And early returns suggest that Florida State’s defense might once flash some of the traits that made Andrews’ defenses so feared – if not in scheme, then at least in attitude.

“We want to be vicious,” former Michigan State defensive end Shilique Calhoun told the Big Ten Network a few years ago, during Barnett’s tenure. “We want to be nasty.”

Michigan State’s track record with Barnett on staff seems to suggest good things are on the way to Tallahassee. Or maybe vicious, nasty things.

The Spartans during coach Mark Dantonio’s tenure have developed a reputation as a program built on defense. They ranked among the top 10 total defenses in five of the last seven seasons – including seventh in 2017 – and have allowed more than 22 points per game in just three of the last seven seasons.

A slew of standout Spartans are now plying their trade in the NFL – including Barnett proteges Darqueze Dennard, Trae Waynes and Tony Lippett – and MSU’s former defensive coordinator, Pat Narduzzi, is now the head coach at Pittsburgh.

Barnett coached under Dantonio and Narduzzi from 2007 until Narduzzi’s departure following the 2014 season.

“(Barnett) did an outstanding job and is a great football coach,” Dantonio said in a prepared statement. “He’s an extraordinary person with tremendous values. … He helped our program win multiple championships and bowl games while also developing All-Big Ten players, All-Americans and NFL draft picks.”

And if that pedigree wasn’t enough, Barnett’s path as a player crossed paths with some of the most respected and successful coaches in any level of football.

As a defensive back at Michigan State in the late-1980s, Barnett played under a 35-year-old defensive coordinator named Nick Saban, who, despite leaving MSU after the 1987 season, helped Barnett lay a foundation that led to All-America honors as a senior in 1989.

Barnett went on to become a fourth-round draft pick of the Cleveland Browns in 1990, and he spent two (1991-92) years playing for coach Bill Belichick before joining Bill Parcells’ New England Patriots in 1993.

Saban later gave Barnett his first break in collegiate coaching, as a graduate assistant at LSU in 2003.

“My foundation is from (Saban),” Barnett said in 2015, before the Spartans met Alabama in the College Football Playoff. “I just took notes. … There was always attention to detail. It was never, ‘Just hit him here.’ You have your hand (a certain) way, thumb this way, and your aim is there, eye control is here. Those type of things.”

As for what to expect on the field, Barnett told the Big Ten Network that he thinks of his defenses as having a nine-man front, with safeties joining the defensive line and linebackers and cornerbacks expected to hold their own in one-on-one matchups.

It’s a demanding approach, but one that also allows for skilled athletes to do what comes naturally.

Barnett certainly made a believer out of his players:

“Our corners are pretty much out on islands and have to play with great technique, pressed-up man technique throughout the entire game,” Barnett said. “Generally, when our corners have great years, our defense is having a great year.”

Good news, then, that Barnett will be inheriting a roster with plenty of promise at both the corner and safety spots.

Sophomore cornerback Levonta Taylor will be back after a breakthrough season, as will veterans Kyle Meyers, A.J. Westbrook and Calvin Brewton, and promising freshmen Stanford Samuels III, Hamsah Nasirldeen and Cyrus Fagan.

Those players will all likely be asked to do different things in the months and years ahead, but, then again, different is the idea after a few years of mixed results on Florida State’s defenses.

Taggart wants a new generation of Brookses and Boulwares. And he seems to have found the perfect man to show his players exactly what that means.

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