SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The decision was simple for Kansas State defensive coordinator Tom Hayes.
When junior safety Ty Zimmerman suffered a leg injury in the Wildcats’ 23-10 win over TCU on Nov. 17, it was true-freshman Dante Barnett who was called on to fill the void left by the All-American.
Replacing Zimmerman isn’t an easy thing to do. After all, the Junction City native leads the Big 12 in interceptions and is a big reason the Wildcats are playing Oregon in the Fiesta Bowl Thursday night and were in the national title hunt for much of the season.
Though Barnett had played some, his first start came a week later against Baylor on the road — the game that ended K-State’s national title chances when the Cats lost 52-24. Barnett was an easy target for the Bears’ high-octane offense because of his youth on an experienced defensive unit.
Barnett did collect 14 tackles in that loss, but also gave up some big plays. He came back in the Wildcats’ regular-season finale against Texas and his improvement was evident.
“I know that he gave up a big play against Baylor,” Hayes said, “and I knew why and he knew why right after it happened. But he corrected it, and he made 14 solo tackles in that game, which is hard to do, especially as a very young player.”
That’s why Hayes thinks Barnett could have a bright future with the Wildcats going forward and a big reason he earned the start over senior backup defensive back Thomas Ferguson.
“He’s smart and he studies the game,” Hayes said. “He’s still youthful, but I like him and I like his approach, and that’s why I chose him to be the guy to replace Ty.”
The 6-foot-1, 186-pound Barnett said the two weeks between the Baylor loss and the Texas game were spent working with Zimmerman on ways to improve his game. Part of that growth process included getting over his jitters as a first-time contributor for the Wildcats.
“I wasn’t too nervous, but I did have some, kind of like bubbles in my stomach before I went onto the field,” said Barnett, who has 24 tackles and two pass deflections this season. “But after a minute or two, those were all gone and I felt like I was in my game.”
Though Zimmerman returns to the field Thursday night when the Wildcats meet the Ducks at University of Phoenix Stadium at 7:30 (CST), the experience Barnett gained in those two starts could go a long way in shaping the rest of his career at K-State.
“I think it gives him an advantage,” Hayes said. “You think you know, but you don’t really know until you get out there in the middle of the game, in the heat of the battle. I think he’s gained confidence from that.”
Zimmerman has tried to invest in Barnett’s future as well, and for good reason. Barnett could find himself on the field in another defensive back position next season. The Wildcats return only two starters on that side of the ball in Zimmerman and linebacker Tre Walker.
“I try to give him tips and pointers here and there, but, you know, he’s a very mature young man and he’s hopped right in and done a great job,” Zimmerman said. “He’s really taken it under his own responsibility to get himself prepared. I have a lot of admiration for Dante and the way he goes about his work.”
One of the important factors for a young player like Barnett is being able to find ways to improve and do it quickly when so many new things are being thrown his way. That’s something the Tulsa, Okla., native has been able to do though.
“I’m impressed with how he played in his opener,” Hayes said, “and he got better in the second game against Texas and I fully expect him to continue to get better at everything he does. That’s just the kind of kid he is.”