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How UGA’s Michael Barnett became ‘tougher than everybody else,’ unselfish defense mentor

UGA’s Kirby Smart talks Dooley, slow start and Stetson Bennett after win over Murray

University of Georgia Bulldogs head coach Kirby Smart spoke with media after a 63-17 win over the Murray State Racers. Smart talked about the significance of Vince Dooley in his life and the importance of Stetson Bennett getting playing time.
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University of Georgia Bulldogs head coach Kirby Smart spoke with media after a 63-17 win over the Murray State Racers. Smart talked about the significance of Vince Dooley in his life and the importance of Stetson Bennett getting playing time.

Michael Barnett started wearing the bracelet after the 2018 National Championship game.

The red band of rubber reads “Humble over Hype,” which Barnett said is a reminder that Georgia isn’t as good as all the media buildup that sometimes comes with being a powerhouse program.

But in a way, it also describes Barnett perfectly. The fifth-year senior doesn’t put up gaudy stats or get all the publicity, but he’s a consistent cog in a defensive line that is willing to make sacrifices for the good of the team.

“I don’t like all the limelight and whatnot,” Barnett said. “I just do whatever the team needs.”

That even includes switching positions. In 2016, Kirby Smart’s first year in Athens, the head coach experimented with Barnett at offensive line before moving him back to defense later that fall.

Barnett reshirted in 2016 after a freshman year that saw him record five tackles in seven games. He started 2017 on the scout team, but he worked his way up to playing time and a start in the season finale.

“The next thing you know, he’s starting against Georgia Tech because he’s tougher than everybody else because he played every single snap down there,’’ Smart said.

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Georgia defensive tackle Michael Barnett (94) during the Bulldogs’ session on the Woodruff Practice Fields in Athens, Ga., on Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2019. Tony Walsh Georgia Sports Communications

While on the scout unit, Barnett went against the likes of Isaiah Wynn, Ben Cleveland, Lamont Gaillard and Isaiah Wilson. That old saying of iron sharpens iron most certainly was true for him.

“It’s like one of them days, you’re going to have to get better somehow,” Barnett said. “You’re tired of just getting bullied in the dirt and what not, so after a while you just know, ‘Man, just shut off a block and do what the coach wants.’”

Since the end of the 2017 season, Barnett has appeared in every game Georgia has played in. He’s notched 18 tackles in those 16 games, far from an eye-popping number.

However, true to his unselfish nature, Barnett said his role is about creating plays for other members of the defense.

“Just free up the linebackers so they can make plays because really, it’s a team effort,” Barnett said. “If they win, we win. If it’s a defensive win, the whole team wins.”

Barnett is now in his fifth and final season in Athens. He’s been in town even longer than head coach Kirby Smart, which defensive back Mark Webb described as “crazy.”

The Bulldogs don’t just need Barnett as a space eater up front any more, although he’s still valuable there as well. Now, his equally important role is as a leader of the Georgia defense.

This is largely accomplished just by relating his experiences of the previous four years. While Webb said Barnett never actually uses the phrase “back in my day,” his tales of what past seasons have been can show the Bulldogs they don’t have it so bad.

For example, Barnett was a player when the sparkling new indoor practice facility was being built. This forced the team to take buses down to the university’s club sports fields on Milledge Avenue every day for practice.

“They really had it rough,” Webb said. “We don’t know what that feels like. I was the year coming in after that, so he was like ‘It could be rougher, we used to have two-a-days’ and stuff like that. Hustle now because we’ve only got one practice.’”

More specifically, Barnett plays a role in mentoring younger defensive linemen like Jordan Davis and Travon Walker. He imparts the importance of being prepared, knowing other teams’ tendencies in order to play faster and more instinctually on the field. As for those in his old shoes on the scout team, Barnett tells them simply, “Trust the process.”

After all, the experience and wisdom of an elder statesman like Michael Barnett doesn’t come overnight.

“I just know with myself, it was a process,” Barnett said. “At the same time, I know with them it’s going to be a process. It’s just like you’re not going to know everything that I know in a day’s work or a week’s work. It comes with time.”

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