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‘I’m Blessed to Have him in my Corner’: Penn State DL Responding to Deion Barnes

CHAMPAIGN, IL - SEPTEMBER 16: Penn State Nittany Lions Defensive Line Coach Deion Barneslooks on as players warm up for the college football game between the Penn State Nittany Lions and the Illinois Fighting Illini on September 16, 2023, at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Illinois. (Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire)

Penn State head coach James Franklin didn’t plan to hire Deion Barnes as the school’s next defensive line coach.

When John Scott Jr. left for the NFL in late February, Barnes—who had been promoted from graduate assistant to analytics coordinator the previous month— almost immediately had his name brought up by Penn State fans and media as a possible successor.

Although Franklin gave him an interview, he did it as more of a courtesy and wasn’t seriously considering Barnes for the job.

“We interviewed him, and it was probably one of those interviews where you interview somebody to basically cover your bases,” Franklin told reporters at Big Ten Media Days in July. “We interviewed him and a bunch of established college coaches and a bunch of established NFL coaches, and he blew them all away. He dominated the interview. From that point on, I started looking at Deion as a legit candidate for this position.”

Along with the big boss, Barnes impressed defensive coordinator Manny Diaz. As for the players, well, they wanted him from the start. Eventually, after a two-week process— Franklin usually waits about half that time to hire an assistant— Barnes got the job.

Five games into Barnes’ first season in his new role, Penn State’s defense is arguably the best in the country, ranking first in total defense.

A big part of this success has been the defensive line and especially the ends, which is where Barnes played at Penn State. Against Northwestern this past Saturday in Evanston, Penn State sacked the quarterback seven times, and the DL was responsible for 4.5 of them. Penn State also held Northwestern’s ground game to 45 yards on 32 carries, which speaks well for the men up front.

During his postgame press conference, I asked Franklin about how the early stages of Barnes’s tenure are going, now that the team’s had five games to put what they’re learning from “Coach Deion” into practice.

“You never want to speak too soon, right?” Franklin said. “But Deion played here at Penn State, so he takes a ton of pride in the University, in the community, in the football program. Then not only that, he was on our staff for three years as a graduate assistant, so kind of understood the culture and how we work, and what the expectations and standards are.
“His players absolutely love him. That was a big part in hiring him. They pounded the table hard for him. But at the end of the day, it’s about coaching those guys, it’s about developing them both on and off the field.”

 

One of those players, second-year end Dani-Dennis Sutton, told reporters after Saturday’s game that Barnes told the unit before the game to “throw your fastball.”

It did.

Barnes and Franklin were two of the first people who recruited Dennis-Sutton in high school. Dennis-Sutton eventually became a five-star, dominating at Maryland’s McDonogh School.

Now, Dennis-Sutton is quickly developing into a star into a star in the Big Ten, and he feels Barnes has played a big role in that.

“Every since I’ve met him, he’s been a real dude,” Dennis-Sutton said Saturday,” kept everything straightforward with me, and then since I’ve gotten here since he’s been the D-line coach and GA before, he’s just given me so much knowledge. He’s instilled confidence in me.”

A big way that Barnes has helped Dennis-Sutton is what he tells him when a play doesn’t go the way DDS wants.

“I’ve lost a couple of rushes out there,” he said, “but he’s just like, ‘bro, just focus on the next rush, and then eventually, those things will come.'”

When Barnes came back to his alma mater as a graduate assistant in 2020, Adisa Isaac was in his second year at Penn State.

“Just a young Adisa,” Isaac, now a fifth-year senior, said Saturday.

Before the 2021 season, Isaac suffered a season-ending injury, which took away what could have been a breakout year.

During that 2021 season, Isaac’s relationship with Barnes grew, and Isaac got to see football through a different lens having to watch, not play.

“Now I’m in the background with him,” Isaac said, “just standing there, kind of just observing what he’s looking at. He’s telling me, ‘Did you see that play, that’s how you would have played it.'” The mental aspect of it is really important, not just on the field, during reps. You just have to kind of… if you know what you’re doing, you can play way faster. If you’re prepared for a presentation, you’re going to ace it if you know what you’re talking about. So that’s just kind of a big part of not playing. You get a better mental aspect of everything.”

Even though Barnes is early in his coaching career, Isaac notices that Barnes already has a great sense of what the opposing offense is going to do.

“A lot of the things, he calls out before it happens, are like things that we’re going to get in the game,” Isaac said. “That helps us just see it before it happens. That’s a great tool for us to have, especially as a D-line coach.”

Isaac also feels Barnes having played in the Big Ten for four years is another big advantage.

“He’s been in our shoes before,” Isaac said, “so he’s seen some of the similar teams, and some of these teams really don’t change their identity, so a lot of it comes back to him relating some of his own experiences that he’s had, playing the end position to a lot of the ends in the room and how to play this technique and what not. Like I said, it’s a great tool for us to have.”

Franklin took a chance on Barnes, and so far, he and Diaz are pleased with the results.

”It’s like anything else, right?,” Franklin said. “You make decisions and then you look back a couple months later, and you want to be pleased with the decision you’ve made. And Deion has done all the things necessary to make Manny (Diaz) and myself feel like we made the right decision.”

With that says, Franklin understands the job isn’t finished.

“I think Deion’s got a very, very bright future,” Franklin said. “I’m glad he’s with us. But there’s still a ton of work. I still think we can get better at that position. The exciting thing about Deion is his future is ahead of him. The things that he does well, he’s elite at. But just like anybody early in his career, there’s a ton of areas for growth. So it’s exciting from a potential standpoint.”

Isaac loves playing for Barnes, and looks forward to what lies ahead.

“Oh, man, he’s been great for me, man… he’s been great for my development overall,” Isaac said. “I’m blessed to have him in my corner, and I just want to keep building with him. We have the rest of the season to go, we have a lot more success to get.”

 

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