It was Nov. 17, 2012, when Dante Barnett got a rude introduction to college football.
Kansas State traveled to Baylor ranked as the No. 1 team in the country, and two wins away from a shot at the national title.
Ty Zimmerman was hurt, so the Wildcats turned to their next best option at safety in his place — a freshman in Barnett.
Baylor noticed Zimmerman’s absence, picking on Barnett’s inexperience numerous times with their spread-it-out, air-it-out attack that torched the Wildcats’ national title game hopes in a 52-24 loss.
“They kind of toasted him a couple times,” defensive coordinator Tom Hayes said. “But if you look at the body of work he had for the game, he was very productive — had 14 tackles and a couple pass breakups — did some good things. I knew he was going to be a good player. We wouldn’t have put him in there if we didn’t think he could be the guy to do it, and he certainly played well the next week and last year had a really good starting year.”
In his first full year in the defense, playing opposite Zimmerman, Barnett started all 13 games and ranked third on the team with 75 tackles and led the team with four interceptions. In helping the team win its first bowl game in 11 seasons, Barnett earned defensive MVP honors at the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl with eight tackles and an interception.
With Zimmerman gone, Barnett said much will be the same for him. But he knows his time to step up and be a leader is now.
“I still have the same responsibility, making calls, doing what safeties do,” he said. “I would say I have to be more vocal with the team since I want to be one of the leaders. I have to be more vocal for that.”
When Barnett stepped in two years ago, it was Zimmerman who guided him. He played better a week later when the Wildcats clinched the Big 12 title with a win over Texas. And he spelled Zimmerman in the Fiesta Bowl when the safety tried to make his way back from injury.
Last season, when Zimmerman went down with injury again, Barnett learned from the way he guided Dylan Shellenberg in replacing him.
Although Zimmerman appeared quiet, Hayes said he was outspoken in the locker room, especially in the absence of coaches, and that’s where he showed the kind of leadership that Barnett is hoping he can replicate.
That’s where one trait that Barnett has comes into play. Hayes said he’s quick to learn and adapt.
“The one thing I know about Dante, he’s a smart guy,” he said. “You don’t have to tell him but once — he gets it — and he’s really serious about his job.”
When Barnett thinks about those two games from the 2012 season, he says getting thrown into the fire helped him learn how to handle being a starting player. By the time the 2013 season started, he knew how to handle practicing and adjusting himself to gameday.
He also learned from each game. And as each game passed, he continued to improve. He made a season-high 12 stops against Oklahoma in the final home game, and had two interceptions against Kansas the following week to wrap up the regular season.
“Anytime you go into the season, each week you want to get better and better, learn from the mistakes from the previous week,” he said. “That’s what I tried to do last season.”
Barnett said his confidence peaked in the bowl game, and he started to let the game come to him. Always humble, he credits the rest of the defense for his defensive MVP honor.
K-State loses six defensive starters from a season ago, with three of those coming in the secondary, leaving Barnett and nickleback Randall Evans as the only returning starting defensive backs.
Barnett said it doesn’t feel much different than it did a year ago, when the Wildcats were seeking to replace even more players on defense.
“Last year we opened up the season with new faces,” he said. “Everybody wants to step up. That’s all we’re going to do this year.”
At the other safety spot, Barnett said competition is tight between Schellenberg and Travis Green. Even his spot, he says, is up for grabs in tight competition, pushing him to get better every day.
Barnett was forced to learn from his mistakes two seasons ago when he made his debut as a starter at Baylor. And he said the team learned from its mistake when it lost to North Dakota State to open the 2013 campaign.
And it’s a lesson he’s making sure is spread to the new faces in the locker room.
“Last year we started off slow, losing our first game,” he said. “My biggest goal is to go and win Game 1 for us. (The new players) all knew what happened. They had an awareness of K-State, they knew we were on TV losing to an FCS school. They know we want to go out and win that first game. Right now, that’s the goal.”