During Michael Barrett’s freshman year in 2018, Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown decided to think outside the box.

At the time, Barrett was still bouncing around between different positions. He was recruited as a general athlete following a stellar high school career as a quarterback in Georgia. When he signed with the Wolverines, Jim Harbaugh compared Barrett to former All-Pro wide receiver Anquan Boldin, while others expected him to settle in as a running back.

For a while, nobody knew for sure where Barrett would fit in. So when Brown asked Barrett to go through a series of defensive drills, it didn’t seem like a big deal.

But when Brown watched Barrett ace coverage workouts, it forever changed Barrett’s trajectory. From that point forward, he was a VIPER in training, waiting in the wings as Khaleke Hudson blossomed into a star. Before Hudson, Heisman finalist Jabrill Peppers dominated the position.

On Saturday night, it was Barrett’s turn to step into the role that has defined Michigan’s defense since Brown arrived five years ago. Now a redshirt sophomore, Barrett seized the moment, assembling a highlight tape of game-changing plays in the 18th-ranked Wolverines’ 49-24 win over No. 21 Minnesota.

It didn’t take long for Barrett to make his presence known. Less than eight minutes into the game, he rocked Gophers’ quarterback Tanner Morgan on a blindside blitz. The jarring hit popped the ball out of Morgan’s possession and into the hands of senior defensive lineman Donovan Jeter, who returned it 15 yards for a go-ahead touchdown.

The Wolverines never trailed again from that point on, thanks in large part to Barrett’s steady production at the heart of the defense.

“Where I’ve seen Mike Barrett improve most is just consistency,” senior linebacker Josh Ross said. “He’s always had the athleticism, he just made small mistakes all the time. Now, he’s consistent, he does everything right and he takes advantage of his opportunities. He’s going to have a really big year. … For me, it’s just the consistency in doing everything the right way in practice and displaying it in the game.”

After a Minnesota field goal trimmed Michigan’s lead to 14-10, it was Barrett spearheading the Wolverines’ response. The Gophers’ ensuing kickoff landed in front of Barrett in no man’s land, but he scooped it up, powered through the teeth of Minnesota’s special teams unit and picked up a sideline block on his way to a 66-yard return. By the time he was pushed out, he’d set Michigan’s offense up with a first-and-goal. Between the strip-sack of Morgan and explosive kickoff return, Barrett keyed two of the Wolverines’ three first-quarter touchdowns.

A year after turning heads with fourth-down trick play conversions against Army and Maryland, Barrett continued to produce on special teams. In addition to his 66-yard return, he recovered a crucial kickoff fumble to keep Minnesota at bay. With Michigan leading 35-24 at the time, his heads-up play helped avoid a costly error that would’ve given the Gophers a chance to make it a one-possession game.

Barrett’s special teams prowess isn’t new. On Saturday night, it was his production as the starting VIPER that raised eyebrows. He forced a crucial turnover and finished with seven tackles — 1.5 of which came in the Gophers’ backfield.

“I felt great,” Barrett said. “It felt good to finally go out there with the guys I’ve been working with, (linebackers) Cam (McGrone) and Josh and go out there and let it loose. It felt great. I felt like a new man.”

With Hudson and Peppers now in the NFL, Barrett entered this fall hoping to continue a strong lineage. Following Saturday night, it looks like the Brown may have found his next star VIPER pupil.

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