This is the latest in a series examining the 15 most important assistant coaching hires of the 2018 season. Previous installment:
Who: Harlon Barnett, Florida State
Title: Defensive coordinator/defensive backs coach
Previous stop: Michigan State associate head coach/co-defensive coordinator/defensive backs coach (2007-17)
Why he’s important: Hoo boy is it an interesting time in the history of Florida State football. After the Seminoles’ first head coaching vacancy since the conclusion of the 1975 season — I repeat: the 1975 season — Florida State brought home native Floridian and lifelong FSU fan Willie Taggart to take his dream job, and Taggart in turn hired Mark Dantonio disciple Harlon Barnett to run his defense.
A 7-year NFL veteran with 300 career tackles, Barnett was brought to Tallahassee to install an identity that was as integral to the Seminoles brand as the spears on the helmets, an attitude that attracted a young Taggart to the ‘Noles in the first place: toughness and swagger.
And let’s put it this way: Barnett’s nickname in The League was “Da Bang Stick.”
“I looked up a few of the players that played for him in the past,” FSU cornerback Stanford Samuels III told the Tallahassee Democrat in April. “A few of their highlights from the past couple years at Michigan State. I actually even saw that one play where he made the hard tackle… when he was playing DB.”
If this hire goes right, Barnett will have alums from Deion Sanders to Derwin James wishing they still had eligibility.
“He is a fantastic coach who learned from two of the best defensive minds in the country, and his style of defense will build on the history of dominant and feared defenses in Garnet and Gold,” Taggart said upon Barnett’s January hiring.
At Michigan State, Barnett moved to the head of the defensive table when Pat Narduzzi took the Pittsburgh job after the Spartans’ Big Ten championship and College Football Playoff run in 2015. After suffering through a down year in 2016, Michigan State bounced back in 2017, finishing seventh nationally in total defense and in the top 20 in yards per play, scoring and passing efficiency en route to a 10-3 season and a No. 15 final ranking.
He takes over a defense that was even better against the pass and on a down-to-down basis. It wasn’t the defense’s fault the ‘Noles sputtered to a 7-6 season, not with a 4.75 yards per play average that finished 11th nationally.
One thing’s for sure: Florida State has never attempted this type of re-tooling in an environment as competitive as this one, not with Clemson the 2018 national title favorite, Miami ascending under Mark Richt, Florida pulling in one direction under Dan Mullen and, oh yeah, Georgia, Alabama and Auburn all battling FSU for the same players on the recruiting trail.
With the offense adjusting from Jimbo Fisher’s complicated pro-style scheme to Taggart’s Gulf Coast offense, the defense will be expected to play at a nationally elite level from Day One.
Under Barnett, the FSU defense has a chance to do just that.