Harlon Barnett Leaving Michigan State, Will Become Defensive Coordinator at Florida State

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Harlon Barnett Leaving
File photo. Harlon Barnett, Assistant Head Coach/Co-Defensive Coordinator/DBs of Michigan State, is leaving East Lansing to join Willie Taggert's staff at Florida State. (Photo by Dave Reginek/Getty Images)
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Harlon Barnett Leaving MSU to Become DC at Florida State

News broke Friday morning, first reported by Sports Illustrated’s Bruce Maxwell, that Michigan State co-defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett was leaving to accept the position as the sole defensive coordinator for Florida State. The terms of the deal have not been made public yet, but Yahoo! Sports’ Pete Thamel is reporting that it is a three-year contract worth nearly $1 Million annually. Barnett is a former Spartan safety, starring from 1986-89. He had been a member of the staff for all 11 of Mark Dantonio’s seasons in charge at MSU. In addition, he was also a member of Dantonio’s three Cincinnati staffs.  While his departure creates a void, Dantonio will be eager to fill his spot as soon as possible.

Immediate Impact

The most obvious change to the staff will most likely be Mike Tressel being promoted (sort of) from co-defensive coordinator to a solo position. This will change his duties slightly, but he was already considered the primary playcaller for the Spartan defense. This defense will return nine starters from a group that finished No. 7 in the nation. There is indeed hope yet.

Barnett was the secondary coach in addition to his role as co-defensive coordinator. This secondary will return all four starters from last season. If it had occurred in any year before 2018, perhaps Barnett’s departure would have created massive recruiting ripples. However, because of early signing, all 20 of Michigan State’s early signees are locked in. That is to say, none of them will be following him to Florida State as has happened previously. A look at the Spartans’ 2018 class reveals how impactful Barnett was on the recruiting trail.

Of the Spartans’ 20 signees, 11 (or 12) were on the defensive side of the ball. Amazingly, either 5 or 6 of these signees were in the secondary. La’Darius Jefferson, of Muskegon, may play QB or may play DB when he comes to East Lansing. Certainly, these players must be slightly alarmed. But fortunately (for MSU, maybe not for them) they are locked into the program and will stay play for the Spartans. Secondary commits include Jefferson, Mr. Football in Michigan Kalon Gervin, and Michael Dowell, brother of Andrew and David Dowell.

Calling the Replacements

These highly-touted freshmen, along with last year’s excellent secondary, will still play for MSU. But under who? Speculation has been rampant already about who Dantonio will tee up to fill Barnett’s spot. The three candidates most bandied about are all former Spartan defensive backs. These are Pitt CB coach Renaldo Hill, ex-UCLA DB coach Demetrice Martin, and Central Michigan DB coach Archie Collins. Let’s briefly examine all three.

Hill played under Nick Saban and Dantonio in the late 1990s before embarking on a successful NFL career. He is best known for his game-clinching interception in Columbus against #1 Ohio State in 1998. He currently coaches the corners at Pittsburgh under former MSU Defensive Coordinator Pat Narduzzi. He has had some success, coaching two All-ACC corners, and helping shut down unbeaten Miami earlier this season. The attractions here are the tie to Dantonio and the link to the program through Narduzzi. Right now, I am not sure if he fits the bill as an experienced enough coach himself.

Martin was the DB coach at UCLA under Jim Mora, but was not retained by Chip Kelly. He is from Pasadena, CA, but did play for MSU in the 1990s. His current work situation (unemployed) certainly makes hiring him easier than other candidates. He has also had success, coaching multiple All-Pac 12 corners. He previously coached under Steve Sarkisian at Washington. While Kelly did not retain him, he developed a reputation as a dogged recruiter and having a west coast recruiting presence certainly could not hurt.

The Most Qualified Candidate

Archie Collins also played for the Spartans in the late 1990s. Collins is the only one of these candidates, however, to have previous work experience in green and white. He was a defensive GA from 2010-12, helping improve the careers of guys like Johnny Adams and Darqueze Dennard. He currently is the DB coach for Central Michigan, where he has coached two all-MAC players. A Detroit native, he is a Cass Tech graduate, where he coached for several years. In fact, he coached there, Detroit Mackenzie, and Detroit Southeastern before moving to the college ranks. He won the MAC recruiter of the year in 2015, according to scout.com. His obvious Detroit ties make him a perfect candidate- I think he is the most likely replacement.

We should also not forget that coming Tuesday, the NCAA will allow the hiring of a 10th on-field coach. There is a chance that Dantonio hires two coaches involved in the secondary. I do think it is more likely that a new linebackers coach is hired in addition to secondary. The reasons are twofold: first, Dantonio is a former defensive back himself and takes a keen interest in the position. Second, Mike Tressel will likely need to focus all of his effort on coordinating the defense, since he will no longer have the help of Barnett.

Long-Term Possibilities

The Lansing State Journal’s Graham Couch wrote an excellent piece on Barnett’s departure Friday. His thesis was that Barnett would need a more prominent coordinating role in order to one day become a head coach. Follow the trail for a second: Barnett and Willie Taggart build a juggernaut Florida State defense in the next couple of years. Then, Barnett takes the head job at a smaller school somewhere in the Eastern time zone. Time passes and Mark Dantonio grows old. Like Caesar, perhaps he weeps for there are no worlds left to conquer. He retires. The Spartans look to hire a promising young head coach.

Spartan secondary coach leaves and becomes a defensive coordinator for a more prominent program. Then, he becomes a head coach at a smaller school in the Eastern time zone. Then, he returns to East Lansing to lead the troops to glory. Does this sound like anyone to you? Perhaps someone who has, I don’t know, 100 wins in green and white?

Maybe this is not goodbye forever. Perhaps this is more of an “until next time.”

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