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Undrafted Calvin Barnett making a strong early impression


After a recent practice, a reporter asked Cleveland Browns defensive coordinator Jim O'Neil a question: are you loaded on defense?

O'Neil started naming the usual suspects. Ahtyba Rubin. Phil Taylor. The improvement of Billy Winn. But then he said this.

"I really like Calvin Barnett, the kid we picked up post-draft as a free agent," O'Neil said, unprompted.

Barnett arrived in Berea last month by way of Oklahoma State. His college teammate, Justin Gilbert, received much of the praise, but Barnett was a disruptive force as a 4-3 defensive tackle. The 300-pounder was First-Team All-Big 12 in 2012 and 2013. It was the first time a Cowboy's lineman had received such honors in back-to-back years since 1990-91.

So it was strange when Barnett wasn't drafted.

"But that doesn't matter now," Barnett said. "It stings for a day, but then it doesn't matter. I'm in the building. We are all playing on the same field."

A wise 22-year-old with a booming voice, Barnett remembers the time he nearly quit football.

Barnett was  top recruit out of Booker T. Washington High School in Oklahoma, but his grades never fully recovered from a lackadaisical showing his freshman year. Instead of being a big man on campus, the defensive lineman was forced to attend Navarro Community College, in Corsicana, TX.

He despised the school at first.

At the most, 500 fans would show up for a home game, played at a local high school stadium. A stamp collector's convention had more energy than games at Navarro did. He doubted this school could turn him into the player he wanted to be. Barnett became homesick.

It took a bold comment from a best friend back home in Tulsa, Okla., to change Barnett's outlook. His friend asked him how it felt to be at such a low point in his life. Barnett realized even the people closest to him were doubting his future. Barnett's football days could be numbered if he didn't rededicate himself to the game he loved.

Barnett counted down the days at Navarro – three semesters in thirteen months – but he found new purpose and energy.  The team won a national championship his freshman year, widening the scope of potential D-1 suitors. Barnett continued to work his tail off at the community college and as a sophomore in 2011 he earned second-team All-American honors for the JUCO level. Oklahoma State came knocking, and Barnett turned into a catalyst for the defense.

"Focusing at Navarro was the turning point for me," said Barnett. "Not even in football, but in life."

Back in Berea, much is being asked of Barnett. He has never played in a 3-4 scheme, yet the Browns still feel comfortable teaching him all three positions on the defensive line during OTAs. Barnett earned the nickname "Savage" in high school for his physical play. Even in practice, he's a tenacious player who has already been involved in one minor scuffle.

"When we line up against each other, we are not friends," Barnett said of the competitive OTAs. "They are trying to keep their job, and I'm trying to earn my job."

There's no doubting the Browns' defensive line is loaded. Spots on the rotation will not be handed to anyone. There's also no doubting that Barnett is a player pushing for heavy playing time this preseason.

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