McGrane: Nobody's Perfect, but Alex Barrett is Close
Aug. 28, 2016
2016 Mick McGrane Features
McGrane: Nobody is Perfect, but Alex Barrett is Closing Fast
You peer behind doors and peek into closets. You rifle through drawers, upend the furniture and sweep everything from the shelves.
Not a clue. Not a hint. Not one thing suggesting a flaw, a fault or a foible.
You consider canvassing campus, grilling everyone from scholars to forlorn freshmen. Somebody, somewhere has the goods on Alex Barrett. Nobody's this perfect.
And then, there it is, the one thing that blows the lid off. Confession time.
"He and I joke around a lot, where he tries to blame me for (missing) plays and I blame him," says senior linebacker Calvin Munson. "He's got a great sense of humor. I love him to death."
Ugh. Yuck. You're looking for dirt and you're subjected to cover-up, another smoke-screen, the customary sickly-sweet profession of admiration that comes from those unwilling to root out a rat.
In time, after concluding that pounding your head against the wall does little for your brain or the unforgiving plasterboard, you surrender. You succumb to the fact that Alex Barrett is simply an enemy of evil and a doer of good. A champion of the people and a villain's cold sweat.
That he also plays football, with an equal measure of savvy and savagery, is not a bad thing, either.
Consider his sophomore season when Barrett, who at 255 pounds is anything but a model nose tackle, was not merely tabbed the team's top defensive lineman but was pronounced by head coach Rocky Long as the best defensive tackle in the Mountain West.
Players not having started a single game the previous season are rarely hailed as the "best" anything, perhaps less so by a coach with the defensive genius of Long. Nonetheless, Barrett, routinely dealing with offensive linemen 60-70 pounds heavier and suffering a foot injury that cost him the final three games of the season, ranked second on the team in tackles for loss (9.0) and sacks (3.0).
"It was really humbling," said Barrett, who is expected to open the season at his former position of right defensive end after an injury to Christian Heyward found Barrett again relocated to nose tackle for the final two games of 2015. "To have (Long) call me the best in the conference really allowed me to feed off of that last year. Now that I'm going into my senior year, you really want to be the best you can be. You never want to plateau in this game. You always want to achieve the goals you set for yourself, and those goals right now, as a team and as an individual, have never been higher."
Particularly when preseason national publications are assigning you such rankings as second among the league's five-best pro prospects and 10th among defensive ends in the 2017 NFL draft. Yet Barrett, a preseason all-MW pick who was a first-team all-league selection in 2015, has little time for a forecasting of his future. In keeping with the narrative, of a player as adept at fending off blocks as he is praise, Barrett sees himself far less a star in the making than a spoke in the wheel.
"The way I look at it, I have to make a lot of things happen this year for any of the things that are being said about me to even be possible," said Barrett, whose 62 tackles in 2015 led all Aztec defensive linemen (next highest was 38). "There are a lot of expectations being placed on all of us, and we've just got to respond to it. It was last year's team that created all of the buzz that's going on right now, and we're responsible for carrying it on.
"Whatever anybody is saying about us, we're still going to play the way we play. It's all going to come down to that first game. The way we respond in that first game is going to be who this team really is. People can say all they want right now, but our goal is to be a Top 25 team at the end of the season, not just the beginning."
First-year defensive line coach Ernie Lawson, an SDSU alum who played for the Aztecs from 2007-10 and captained the 2010 team that earned the school's first bowl berth since 1998, has fast learned why Long holds Barrett in such high regard.
"When you're as talented as he is, and you still continue to practice as hard as he does, good things are going to happen," said Lawson, who spent two seasons working with Michigan's defensive linemen and linebackers as a graduate assistant under former Aztecs coach Brady Hoke. "You can see in camp that he's even improved from where he was last spring. There are a lot of expectations for him, but all he does is work that much harder.
"I once heard (Northwestern head coach) Pat Fitzgerald say at a coaches' clinic that leaders do what they have to do. It isn't necessarily about being loud. Alex lets his actions speak for themselves. But if he has something to say that the whole group needs to hear, they're going to listen. He doesn't talk just to talk; he talks when something is important and guys need to hear it.
"He's just a very respectful guy. He's never going to be one of those kids that you have to worry about. He makes the right decisions both on and off the field."
And, as a defensive lineman in Long's signature 3-3-5 scheme, serves as a linebacker's best friend.
"A lot of stats that I'm credited with are a credit to him, a ton of them," said Munson, the team's leading tackler last season. "All of the double-teams he takes on, all of the pulling guards and fullbacks, I'm able to stay clean and make plays, and a lot of that is because of Alex.
"He's just somebody who's super humble, maybe one of the most humble guys I've ever seen. He's a great athlete and he knows it, but he's not out there being cocky. He's a great motivator, always encouraging guys to keep going. I love having him in front of me on the D-line, because he makes so many plays that I'm able to feed off of him and he can feed off of me. You always hear about guys leading by example, but he just does everything right."
Including recognizing those who have helped lay the foundation for a program potentially on the brink of its most celebrated season.
"The guys that I've played in this program since I've been here have definitely left their legacy," Barrett said. "When I came in here as a freshman, I wanted to play just like (former Aztecs defensive lineman) Jordan Thomas did. You found yourself really looking up to those seniors. And whether they're aware of it or not, the seniors really have an impact on the younger guys.
"The reason this program is where it is today is because of those senior groups that have come through here. They've paved the way for us. They've shown us just what it means to be an Aztec. I stay in touch with a lot of those guys, and even if we don't talk for awhile, it's like they've never left. You can never break that bond."
Or uncover a single chink in Alex Barrett's armor.