NCF Nation: Lawrence Barnett

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- When Lawrence Barnett suffered a season-ending broken ankle the first game of his senior year of high school in 2008, teammate and lifelong friend Kenny Mullen was there to offer support.

Mullen visited Barnett in the hospital after the game and made a vow. "One way or another," he said, "we'll play together again."

That was far from guaranteed, as Mullen was two years behind Barnett in school. But after Barnett spent two seasons at Indiana and the Hoosiers came to Fort Wayne to recruit Mullen, he had his chance to make good.

"When IU offered me, I committed without a doubt," Mullen said. "Because I had made that promise."

[+] Enlarge Lawrence Barnett
AJ Mast/Icon SMI"We just want to turn this program around and be known as a bowl team," Lawrence Barnett said.
The two got their chance to play together again last season. Barnett started nine games at cornerback, while Mullen appeared in all 12 games, with two starts, as a true freshman nickelback. It seemed like old times for the friends who got to know each other during their kindergarten ages. Mullen always found himself in Barnett's neighborhood for pickup games of football, basketball and whatever else, and the two were Pop Warner teammates. Though they went to different middle schools, they reunited at Fort Wayne's Bishop Luers High School, winning state titles together in football and basketball.

Similar success has yet to follow in college. Their first major taste of Big Ten playing time came during a dismal 1-11 season for the Hoosiers, who had one of the worst defenses in the country. Particularly galling to Barnett and Mullen is the fact that IU ranked 116th out of 120 FBS teams in pass-efficiency defense. They admit that they were a little lost last year in trying both to adjust to top-level competition and learn co-defensive coordinator Doug Mallory's system.

"The system we were playing in before [Mallory arrived] was a lot of Cover 2 and Cover 4," Barnett said. "Last year, we played a lot of man and a lot of disguised zone coverages. We weren't really ready for it."

An extra year of experience and a full offseason of doing things Mallory's way should help things improve in 2012. Mullen was one of 32 redshirt or true freshmen that head coach Kevin Wilson threw into the fire last season, many of them on defense.

"We didn't know how to approach the games or how to play the schemes the correct way," Mullen said. "But we look at last year as a learning experience. We've come out this year playing a lot faster and more aggressively. We know our keys, and we know the soft spots in our own defense."

They're hoping the secondary won't again be one of those soft spots. The good thing about playing so many youngsters last year is now a lot of experience returns. Wilson also brought in two junior college defensive backs for immediate help. And if chemistry is key to good secondary play, you won't find a much better connection than the one Mullen and Barnett share.

"Coaches always want us to communicate with each other," Barnett said, "and when me and Kenny are out there, we already know what the other is going to do. Sometimes I won't even say anything to him and he won't even say anything to me. It makes it a lot easier."

That closeness means the two pick each other up and push one another in offseason workouts. Mullen still lives in the dorms as an underclassmen, but he might as well pay rent on Barnett's apartment for as much as he is over there playing Madden and NBA 2K12 on XBox.

Both loved IU basketball growing up -- Barnett was a star point guard whom the Hoosiers briefly recruited for hoops -- but have become part of the building block for the school's football future. They're following in a recent line of productive Indiana players from Fort Wayne, which include Damarlo Belcher, Dre Muhammad and James Hardy.

Mullen and Barnett are happy they're teammates again. But they're hoping their college experience results in something more than just a great friendship.

"First and foremost, we want to handle our business this season and make a bowl game," Barnett said. "And then hopefully another one. We just want to turn this program around and be known as a bowl team."
Here's what Indiana linebacker Jeff Thomas remembers about last year's game at Wisconsin.

"It was really loud," Thomas said. "And it was a lot to a little."

Yep. That just about covers it.

The Indiana-Wisconsin game made national news last fall because of the final score. As Thomas said, Wisconsin had a lot (83 points), while Indiana had a little (20 points).

Indiana allowed the most points in team history and tied for the largest losing margin in team history with another 63-point defeat in 1915. Wisconsin scored the most touchdowns (11) in team history, put up the third-highest total in a Big Ten game in league history and racked up the most points in a Big Ten game since Ohio State scored 83 against Iowa in 1950.

For Thomas and his teammates, it added up to one very painful afternoon.

"It was pretty tough," Thomas said. "You never want to lose by that much. I've never really been on that side of the ball before. But there's nothing you can do about it now."

Indiana returns to Camp Randall Stadium on Saturday to face No. 4 Wisconsin. While the Hoosiers have plenty of reasons to gear up for the game, revenge isn't at the top of their list.

"The motivation we've got going right now is we're 1-5, and we want to win," Thomas said. "That's motivation we need to address more than beating a team that beat us pretty bad last year. Just wanting to get a win in the Big Ten, that's more motivation than anything."

Indiana coach Kevin Wilson wasn't in Madison last year. Wilson, then Oklahoma's offensive coordinator, spent the day enjoying a lopsided, 45-7 win against Texas Tech.

As part of his effort to change the culture at Indiana, Wilson hasn't spent time discussing the team's past struggles. But he has been on both sides of blowout games, and he has seen different approaches to rematches.

"Every time I’ve used the revenge word or been around coaches that did it, I don’t know if we got the [desired] outcome," Wilson said. "We're a team still trying to find our identity. … We're preaching more about how we want to keep moving forward instead of what happened a year ago."

Last year's game sparked questions of whether Wisconsin ran up the score, especially after Badgers coach Bret Bielema faced similar accusations following a game against Minnesota earlier in the season. Bielema reiterated this week that the claims about running up the score stemmed in part because of the perception Wisconsin has a team that rarely puts up such point totals.

Thomas harbors no ill will about what happened.

"It's just part of the game," he said. "They kept scoring. They obviously didn't have their starters in, so it's our job to stop them on defense. I'm not really mad about it. You keep scoring until somebody stops you."

Indiana has tried to foster a new attitude on defense this year, and while the wins haven't come, there have been some promising signs.

The defense forced four turnovers against Virginia in Week 2 and had a 54-yard fumble return for a touchdown by Lawrence Barnett. Indiana recorded two red-zone takeaways against Penn State in Week 5 and limited the Nittany Lions to 16 points.

Wisconsin poses a much greater test and many are forecasting another beat-down, but Thomas and his teammates are excited to face the Badgers.

"It's a potent offense, and it's our job to stop 'em," he said. "It's a huge opportunity."

Heart-breaking loss for Indiana

September, 10, 2011
Just when it appeared that Indiana was going to get a big win in its second game under Kevin Wilson ... well, an Indiana thing happened:

Virginia 34, Indiana 31: The Hoosiers trailed 23-3 in the second half but then rose up and turned in a terrific stretch, scoring 28 straight points. Matt Perez ran for two scores, and Lawrence Barnett took a fumble recovery 54 yards for a touchdown. IU led 31-23 with less than seven minutes left, looking to even its record at 1-1.

But then Virginia drove down for a score and the tying two-point conversion with under two minutes left. And in truly disastrous fashion, Ed Wright-Baker was sacked and lost a fumble as IU tried to make a late drive. The Cavaliers capitalized, kicked a field goal with two seconds left and delivered yet another heart-wrenching loss into the annals of Hoosier history. Oy, vey.

Hey, at least Indiana showed some serious signs of life after laying that egg against Ball State in the opener. Wilson's rebuilding project has a long way to go, but he has something positive to work with now, if the players can somehow get over what a difficult loss this was.
The Big Ten preseason position rankings have reached the home stretch as we take a look at the secondaries. Although individual positions like center and defensive tackle could boast more star power, the Big Ten's overall strength in the secondary jumps out.

There's a lot to like about the Big Ten cornerbacks as nearly every team boasts experience and/or exciting young players. The Big Ten loses All-Conference safeties Tyler Sash and Jermale Hines but brings back quite a few solid contributors.

There's definite separation after the top four groups, while Nos. 6-9 are extremely close.

Here's the rundown (coming soon: cornerbacks and safeties rankings) ...

[+] EnlargeDrew Astorino and D'Anton Lynn
Maxwell Kruger/US PresswirePenn State has an experienced secondary that includes safety Drew Astorino, right, and cornerback D'Anton Lynn, shown celebrating an Astorino interception last season.
1. Penn State: The Lions' linebackers seem to be generating more preseason buzz, but I really like what Penn State brings back in the defensive backfield. There's plenty of experience with safeties Drew Astorino and Nick Sukay, and cornerbacks D'Anton Lynn and Stephon Morris. Penn State needs Sukay to regain the form he showed in the first half of 2010 before a torn pectoral muscle ended his season. Lynn is a bona fide All-Big Ten candidate. If Malcolm Willis, Chaz Powell and others solidify depth here, Penn State should have an elite secondary.

2. Ohio State: This is a group the Buckeyes rarely have to worry about, even after losing three starters. The good news is several key players return from injuries, including safeties Tyler Moeller, C.J. Barnett and Christian Bryant. Moeller should provide a major boost at the "star" position. The cornerback spots should be fun to watch as Travis Howard and Dominic Clarke fend off some challengers for the starting jobs.

3. Nebraska: Like Ohio State, Nebraska can rely on having an elite pass defense under the Pelini brothers, even after losing several standout players. All-American corner Prince Amukamara will be missed, but Alfonzo Dennard is ready for a starring role. Nebraska needs Ciante Evans to follow what Dennard did in 2010. The Huskers likely will use more linebackers this season, but they'll need to fill holes at safety as Austin Cassidy, Courtney Osborne and others are in the mix.

4. Wisconsin: The Badgers' secondary took a major step forward in Chris Ash's first season on the staff. The key is continued progress, continued playmaking and becoming a truly elite group like Ohio State and Nebraska. Wisconsin seems to have the pieces in place with veteran Aaron Henry at safety, as well as All-Big Ten selection Antonio Fenelus and Devin Smith at cornerback. The Badgers must fill the other safety spot, and speedster Shelton Johnson could fill in there.

5. Michigan State: The secondary triggered Michigan State's 2010 turnaround, improving from 112th nationally in pass defense in 2009 to 60th last season. After recording 17 interceptions last season, the Spartans must stick to their MAP motto -- Make A Play -- as they aim for a repeat championship this fall. Safety Trenton Robinson is among the league's most experienced defensive backs, and hopes are high for cornerback Johnny Adams, who had an excellent spring. The unit could hinge on young players like Darqueze Dennard, Isaiah Lewis and Tony Lippett.

6. Iowa: The bad news is Iowa loses veteran safeties Sash and Brett Greenwood from a defense that slipped to 84th nationally against the pass in 2010. The good news is All-Big Ten cornerback Shaun Prater returns along with playmaking junior Micah Hyde. Prater could be a shutdown corner this fall, and Hyde, whose pick-six won the Insight Bowl, could play either corner or safety. Iowa must build depth around them with Jordan Bernstine, Greg Castillo, Tanner Miller and others.

7. Purdue: One of the Boilers' big question marks entering 2010 turned out to be a pleasant surprise, and the secondary could be a big strength this fall. Here's a group that could make a move up these rankings by November. Cornerback Ricardo Allen is a budding superstar who recorded two pick-sixes last season. Safety Logan Link is always around the football, and Josh Johnson could take a significant step as he complements Allen.

8. Illinois: I'm tempted to rank Illinois a few notches higher, and if the Illini address several questions in the secondary, I'll gladly do so after the season. If safety Supo Sanni returns to form and both he and cornerback Terry Hawthorne stay healthy, this could be an excellent group. Tavon Wilson returns to his preferred position of cornerback and could have a big season, while Trulon Henry brings experience to the safety spot.

9. Northwestern: Given the question marks in the front seven, Northwestern needs its veteran secondary to step up. Players like cornerback Jordan Mabin and safety Brian Peters should answer the bell this fall. Both multiyear starters can make plays on the football and change games. There's good competition between David Arnold and Ibraheim Campbell at the other safety spot, while Jeravin Matthews emerged this spring to win the starting corner job opposite Mabin.

10. Michigan: I'll probably take some heat from Wolverines fans, who will point to the return of cornerbacks Troy Woolfolk and J.T. Floyd, the emergence of young players like Carvin Johnson and a defensive makeover under Brady Hoke and Greg Mattison. All of that could lead to better results, but Michigan still has fewer certainties in the secondary than do most teams on this list. This unit has been a disaster the past few years, and it'll take a lot of things to go right to get things back on track.

11. Minnesota: Linebacker looks like a strength for the Gophers' defense, but there are questions both up front and in the secondary. The secondary will need more help from a line that generated no pass rush in 2010, but the defensive backs must help themselves, too. Cornerback Troy Stoudermire had a good spring and adds a big hitter to the group. Minnesota really needs big things from safety Kim Royston, who wants to lead the way after receiving a sixth year of eligibility. Building depth around Stoudermire and Royston will be vital in preseason camp.

12. Indiana: Fixing this group is arguably the biggest challenge for new coach Kevin Wilson and co-defensive coordinators Mike Ekeler and Doug Mallory. Indiana simply hasn't had enough Big Ten-caliber defensive backs in recent years, and the results have been ugly. The Hoosiers surrendered a league-worst 27 touchdown passes in 2010 and finished 114th nationally in pass defense efficiency. Sophomore safety Greg Heban is a nice piece, but Indiana will need a boost from Lawrence Barnett, Lenyatta Kiles and others.