Position switch to pay off for linemen


Reaction score
Position switch to pay off for linemen

Ex-defensive tackles move to offense and up NFL draft boards

11:41 PM CST on Saturday, April 2, 2005

The fact that Khalif Barnes is one of the top linemen in the 2005 NFL draft comes as no surprise to the hulking Washington tackle.

The same can be said for Jammal Brown, the Outland Trophy winner from Oklahoma. He also is expected to be one of the top linemen in the draft.

But the surprise for Barnes and Brown is that they rank among the best offensive linemen, not defensive.

This was not how the script read coming out of high school.

They were defensive linemen – elite defensive linemen. Both were heavily recruited, Barnes out of suburban San Diego and Brown out of Oklahoma.

Both lined up on defense on the scout team in their redshirt seasons in 2000. But when they finally put on their game uniforms in 2001, they were playing on the other side of the ball.


The Washington Huskies were in Pasadena practicing for the 2001 Rose Bowl, their final game of the 2000 season. Two days before they were to play Purdue, Washington coach Rick Neuheisel made an unusual request of Barnes.

"He told me to take a pass set after practice," Barnes recalled. "So I did, and he looked at Coach [offensive coordinator Keith] Gilbertson and said, 'He could be a natural at the position.' I didn't care. I said, 'I'm playing defense.'

"They said, 'We think you can end up making a lot of money at this position.' I said, 'I don't care. I want to play defense.' I resisted. But they said, 'Well, try it, and if you don't like it, you can switch back.' But they didn't switch me back. I've been playing there ever since the spring of my freshman year."

Barnes was the defensive MVP of his conference as a senior at Mount Miguel High School. He made 125 tackles and nine sacks and was anxious to chase college quarterbacks. He intended to follow in the footsteps of Pacific-10 pass rushers Andre Carter, Terrell Suggs and Kenechi Udeze as first-round NFL draft choices.

Barnes had spent his football career embarrassing offensive linemen. So he didn't want to become one at this late stage. The big money in the NFL is spent on pass rushers, not pass blockers.

"I wanted to sack the quarterback," Barnes said. "I wanted to be like Terrell, Kenechi and those other guys."

But Barnes wound up starting for four seasons as Washington's left offensive tackle. He has put on 35 pounds since his freshman season to build himself into one of the top blockers in the college game. Barnes (6-5, 305) did not allow a sack in his senior season.

Neither did Brown (6-5, 316). He became a four-year starter at tackle for the Sooners. He played on the right side and was a three-time All-Big 12 performer.

Brown was a superb defensive tackle, collecting nine sacks as a high school senior on his way to All-America honors. But the Sooners recruited an even better defensive tackle the following year in Tommie Harris.

"They needed to make room for him," Brown said, "and our offensive line was struggling. I resisted at first. I wanted to play defensive tackle."

Brown did more than resist. He considered leaving. He thought about transferring to Tennessee or Miami, which has always had a great appreciation for defensive tackles.

"But I thought about it and decided I wanted to play for Coach [Bob] Stoops," Brown said. "That's why I came in the first place. So I stayed, and everything worked out."

Barnes and Brown project as first-round NFL draft picks. Marcus Spears also looms high on the draft board despite his resistance to a position change.

Spears began his career at LSU as a tight end but will play in the NFL as a defensive end. He was the nation's top-rated tight end coming out of high school and even made the All-SEC freshman team in 2001 at the position.

But Spears also was an all-state defensive end at Baton Rouge Southern Lab High School – the first player in Louisiana to earn all-state honors on both sides of the ball since 1991.

The Tigers had a need for defensive linemen in 2001, so Spears moved. He wound up starting three seasons on that side of the ball, earning All-SEC acclaim in each of his final two years. His nine sacks in 2004 ranked second in the conference.

The pro-style LSU defense of Nick Saban eased Spears' transition from offense. He was still able to catch the football, making four career interceptions and returning one of them 35 yards for a touchdown. He also intercepted Rex Grossman, Chris Simms and 2003 Heisman Trophy winner Jason White.

"All I ever wanted to do was catch passes and score touchdowns at tight end," Spears said. "I had the chance to do that at defensive end. That was fun for me. So it equaled out."