Commentary

No debating Barnett's move to corner

Updated: October 8, 2008, 12:46 PM ET
By Jon Mahoney | ESPNRISE.com

No matter who he's talking to, C.J. Barnett isn't shy about sharing his opinions. And if that person disagrees -- whether it's a coach, a teammate or a friend -- the Northmont senior cornerback won't back down.

The person Barnett verbally spars with most often is former Northmont offensive lineman Zebrie Sanders, who is now a freshman at Florida State. No matter the subject, if Barnett or Sanders feel they are right, they argue until the other gives up.

[+] EnlargeCJ Barnett
ESPN RISE C.J. Barnett, the nation's No. 5 CB prospect, hates to lose any argument.

And it hasn't stopped with Sanders off at college. Now, their most heated argument is about the strength of the football programs at FSU and Ohio State, where Barnett has committed.

"I can't tell you how many times Zebrie and C.J. argued," says Collin Abels, Northmont's defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach. "You could hear them coming down the halls. I told them, 'You have to calm down.' It's definitely a testament to C.J.'s competitive nature."

Abels has plenty of experience with Barnett's appetite for argument. Also the coach of Northmont's freshman basketball team, Abels remembers spending an entire bus ride home from a game arguing with Barnett about which position he should play.

Barnett had been a post player all his life, and he thought that should continue at the high school level even though he didn't have the necessary size. Abels preferred Barnett at guard, a position better suited for his frame. In the end, Abels kept Barnett at guard but told him he was free to battle in the paint from time to time.

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"I like proving people wrong," Barnett says. "I'm competitive and find [arguing to be] competitive. Someone has to win and someone has to lose, and I definitely don't like to lose."

With that kind of enthusiasm for debate, it's no wonder Barnett wants to study pre-law at Ohio State. Interestingly enough, however, it was a decision that went against his wishes that led the 6-foot-1, 186-pounder to become Ohio's No. 1 football player for the Class of 2009 and the nation's No. 5 cornerback in the ESPNU 150.

Barnett entered Northmont with dreams of becoming a star quarterback for the Thunderbolts. He even attended Mike Schneider's quarterback clinic the summer prior to his freshman year. Schneider, a former head coach at Miamisburg and Wayne, is the quarterbacks coach for Northmont. He is also the father of Northmont head football coach, Lance Schneider.

Lance observed Barnett at the camp and came away believing the youngster had the potential to star on defense for the Thunderbolts.

Barnett stuck at quarterback for the freshman team and played some safety as well. But after the season was over, the Northmont coaching staff made it clear he'd be best utilized on the defensive side of the ball for the varsity. After all, the Thunderbolts already had a star quarterback in Clay Belton, who's now in his second year with the Miami RedHawks, so Barnett's best chance to see the field was as a defensive back.

Barnett reluctantly accepted the assignment.

"I took it that I'm not good enough, so that really hurt me," Barnett says. "But I'm not going to feel sorry for myself. I saw another opportunity and took advantage of it for the team."

Barnett made the most of that opportunity as a sophomore, earning a spot on varsity at cornerback. Learning a new role was a challenge, but he excelled early on thanks to his extraordinary athleticism and perfect size for the position.

He improved steadily as the year went on by working with Abels on proper technique for skills like backpedaling, rotating his hips and jamming receivers at the line of scrimmage. He finished the year with 51 tackles, 13 pass breakups and three interceptions.

By the time Barnett was a junior, opposing teams finally caught on that the Thunderbolts possessed a lockdown corner. "You're going to see him on the other team's best receiver," Lance Schneider says. "And don't expect any catches."

[+] EnlargeCJ Barnett
ESPN RISEC.J. Barnett has verbally committed to Ohio State.

Even though teams stopped throwing to Barnett's side of the field, he still found a way to make a significant impact by totaling 48 tackles, six pass breakups and three interceptions last fall.

Barnett continued his progression at corner by improving his tackling, an upgrade that was sparked after a conversation with Abels. Even though he was in the midst of a terrific season, Barnett asked his coach how he could improve his game. Abels advised him to be a more physical hitter. Barnett responded by earning the Hammer Award -- given to the Northmont player with the biggest hit each week -- in four of the team's final seven games.

"My point to him was that being one of the best players in the area and state, you have to not only be more physical, but you have to send a message as well," Abels says.

After originally being steered to the defensive side of the ball, the Thunderbolts are finally looking to take advantage of Barnett's outstanding skills on offense as well this fall -- in whatever way they can get the ball in his hands. And in addition to two-way duty on the field, Barnett returned as a team captain this season, marking the first time a player has served two years in that role during Lance Schneider's tenure at Northmont.

"I think he's a legitimate NFL guy because of his size, long arms and intelligence -- everything they're looking for at that level," Schneider says.

Looking back, Barnett is glad he didn't fight the position switch as a sophomore. "Playing quarterback, I probably wouldn't have been tall enough," Barnett says. "But you take me to corner, it switches because I'm tall and lanky and have the attributes to play corner. I'm happy they did it."

With the potential to star at Ohio State and then play on Sundays as a cornerback, coming out on the wrong side of the debate isn't looking all that bad for Barnett.

Jon Mahoney covers high school sports for ESPNRISE.com

Jon Mahoney is a football and baseball editor for ESPNHS. Email him at jon.mahoney@espn.com.