VANCOUVER — On his first day on the job as the UBC Thunderbirds’ new defensive coordinator, James Colzie III was getting the grand tour of the program’s football facility from head coach Blake Nill when he spied a player that he thought looked familiar.
“One of the first players I saw was Mitch,” remembers Colzie of Mitch Barnett, the linebacker he last coached in 2013 while serving as the defensive coordinator of the crosstown rival Simon Fraser Clan. “I almost didn’t recognize him. He looked like he had put on 20 pounds of muscle. I said to him ‘I hope you didn’t lose your quickness.’ Every year you’ve got to get bigger, faster and stronger.”
Without question, Barnett has accomplished all of the above, and despite the fact that he and the rest of his teammates along the UBC defence are stinging following a 47-16 beating at the hands of the Calgary Dinos last week, Colzie knows he has some great pieces with which to build around, including the 6-foot-1, 198-pound defensive rover who is as comfortable dropping back into coverage as he is carrying out a blitzing assignment.
This season Barnett, the son of former UBC and B.C. Lions’ cornerback Bruce Barnett, has not only followed in his father’s footsteps after transferring across town from SFU, he has made a smooth transition to the three-down game.
His blend of quickness, instinct and ever-improving strength appears to have manifested itself this season on the wider Canadian field, and nowhere was that better displayed than last Friday in Calgary.
Despite the one-sided loss and the breakdowns that occurred in so many phases of the team’s game, Barnett was one of the bright lights, his 8.5 tackles and three sacks enough to make him the Canada West’s Defensive Player of the Week.
“Because I coached Mitch back at SFU, a lot of the terminology is the same,” explained Colzie, who spent last season in Kansas at Coffeyville junior college after being part of the SFU staff that was fired in 2013 when head coach Dave Johnson was relieved of his duties. “He is one of our top defensive players so we not only put him in a position to make plays, we put a lot on him.”
That defensive unit gets a chance for redemption on Saturday (6 pm.) as part of Homecoming Week as the ‘Birds play host to the Regina Rams before what is expected to be a sell-out crowd at Thunderbird Stadium.
As part of a revamped defence that also includes Kelowna native and Boise State transfer Taylor Loffler at safety, the ‘Birds defence has a chance to show they are more like the unit that beat No. 1 Laval two weekends ago by allowing just 16 points, rather than the one that lost to No. 2 Calgary by allowing 41.
“I think everyone understands the importance of this game,” said Barnett. “We are coming off a tough loss, and no one is happy. But at the end of the day, all of that has motivated us to hit the weights harder and watch that extra bit of film.”
And for Barnett, perhaps a few extra conversations with his dad.
Bruce Barnett was a Canada West all-star for UBC in 1983 and ’84 and he was a part of the T-Birds’ 1982 Vanier Cup team. He was also a member of the B.C. Lions when they won the Grey Cup in 1985.
“My dad had a career-ending hip injury so I don’t know how psyched he was for me to play at first,” Barnett explained. “But he has always played a huge role in my career. I showed interest in football in Grade 9 and so he coached the team. He’s always been there for advice and it’s been nice to have that in my back pocket.
“But at the end of the day (coming to UBC) was a decision he left up to me,” Barnett added. “These days we definitely have more to talk about.”
With another season of eligibility remaining, Barnett will continue to refine his game on the Point Grey campus. And yes, like everyone else on his team, he’d love a shot at a CFL career. But he’s not getting ahead of himself.
“My main focus is winning a Vanier Cup,” Barnett said. “And after that happens, absolutely, the (CFL) is the end goal.”
By then, he’ll be even bigger, faster and stronger. - Howard Tsumura