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When Brian Jean-Mary was hired as Michigan’s linebackers coach this year, one of the first calls he got was from a cousin who had played on the same Lowndes High School team as Michael Barrett.

“Take care of Mike Barrett, coach,” Jean-Mary recalled him saying. “He’s a special player and a good friend.”

In Valdosta, Ga., Barrett holds a special kind of status. He was a quarterback then, putting up 1,700 yards passing and 1,195 yards rushing in his senior year, committing to Michigan, despite other programs asking him to play under center for them. (The chances of that happening for the Wolverines was slim to none, even at the time.)

“People wanna be like Mike,” Randy McPhearson, Barrett’s coach at Lowndes, said. “That used to be a commercial, didn’t it? Be like Mike.”

McPhearson, who coached at Lowndes for nearly 20 years, had a philosophy to put his best athletes on defense — except for the quarterback position. Barrett had been on his radar since middle school, and when he showed up to play, McPhearson made him a backup quarterback. He spent a year playing both ways before becoming the full-time quarterback.

If you go back to Barrett’s commitment, you’ll find quotes from McPhearson saying he can play quarterback in college. You’ll find quotes from Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh saying he could play wide receiver, comparing him to Anquan Boldin. Three years and two starts into his college career, Barrett has landed as a VIPER, and a good one. 

Against Minnesota in the season-opener, Barrett had seven tackles, a sack and 1.5 tackles for loss, with a 66-yard kick return on special teams for good measure. He left the Michigan State game with an injury (Jean-Mary didn’t comment Wednesday on his chances of playing this week), and it says something that after just two weeks, operating without him would be a serious obstacle for Michigan’s defense to overcome. The Monday following the win over Minnesota, Harbaugh extended his news conference to praise Barrett.

“Michael Barrett in his first start was also lights out,” Harbaugh said. “On defense and special teams. This is the first time I can remember maybe back to Jabrill Peppers that we had a player that was the defensive player of the game and the special teams player of the game. That happened Saturday night against Minnesota.”

For Harbaugh, there’s an element of recruiting work paying off there. McPhearson remembers one Friday — a gameday — in which Harbaugh showed up at Lowndes and spent over two hours at the facility, jumping from the office to the fieldhouse and the weightroom. By the end of it, he was drawing plays on the whiteboard. “Not many of them do that,” McPhearson said. “… He wrote his cell phone number on the board.”

Once in Ann Arbor, it didn’t take long for Barrett to move to VIPER. Jean-Mary said Wednesday he had “a couple years” of learning under Khaleke Hudson, making the jump from playing offense easier.

Standing 6-foot with the athletic ability to turn a get an offer to play quarterback in the triple option at Georgia Tech and end up playing linebacker at Michigan, Barrett is an ideal VIPER. There’s always been some mysticism surrounding the position, since the Wolverines are the only program in the country to call their linebacker-safety hybrid position a VIPER. They are not, though, the only program in the country with a linebacker-safety hybrid as a part of their defense.

While the defensive coordinator at South Florida, Jean-Mary deployed a similar position. Asked about the biggest adjustment teaching Michigan’s version of it, he talked first about terminology, which is to say there was little adjustment at all. He compared the linebacker position, one growing smaller and more versatile across the sport, to the evolution taking place in the NBA with centers.

“The big center is becoming null and void in that league because it’s a space game, people space you out, they try to have the 1-on-1 matchup,” he said. “If you have a guy in there that can’t move, all they’re going to do is put a smaller guy on him and run around him. That’s kinda the comparison you get at the linebacker position, because so many people are in spread formations and they put guys out in space. 

“You have to have guys that can play in space, tackle in space, cover in space and can play man-to-man in certain situations where you can get caught on an athletic tight end or an athletic running back.”

Thus, the existence of the VIPER position, and the need for someone like Barrett to play it. 

“As a defensive coach if you say give me the best player at the position or give me the best athlete, you’re always gonna say give me the best athlete,” Jean-Mary said. “You feel like you can groom him to be as good a player as he can be. Athletically, he can match up with different opponents and you can do a little bit more the better the athlete is. We love that athleticism and the football part is gonna come.”

For Barrett, the football part seems to be falling into place.

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