ARLINGTON, Texas — Calvin Barnett's instinct has always been that if he sees any open space, fill it and make the play.
But one moment during a practice before the season showed maybe he really didn't ever need to deviate from his assignment.
“I came off the ball, and I was like in a double team or something,” the Cowboy defensive tackle recalled. “And this gap just opened wide up. The regular me just goes. But I stopped. I'm telling myself, ‘Just stay. Stay. Stay. Stay.'
“The next thing you know, Ryan Simmons flew threw the gap and made the tackle. And I looked at him, and I was like, ‘Yeah, maybe this can work.'
“Now in a game, if a gap opens up, don't expect me to get in it if it's not mine.”
That's the biggest difference in Barnett in his second and final season since transferring from Navarro Junior College. He's no longer concerned with always making the play.
Not because he doesn't care. Because he knows that if he remains a steady, physical force on the interior — one that was worthy of earning All-Big 12 honors this season — that other Cowboys from a transformed defense can finish the job.
That again will be key against a Missouri team in Friday's Cotton Bowl that will pound the football plenty with 1,000-yard back Henry Josey, then run it some more with dual-threat quarterback James Franklin.
“People don't realize, if I didn't have Calvin up there, I would get no tackles,” said Cowboy middle linebacker Caleb Lavey, who emerged as a Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year contender after a monster 2013. “I would have a bad season.”
Barnett admits it took some time to adjust his approach, since in high school and junior college he was the best player on the field.
These days, he's content to occupy an offensive lineman — and sometimes the double team — while trusting a linebacker behind him ultimately will make the tackle.
The results for Barnett himself don't exactly pop off the page — 26 tackles (four for loss), two sacks, five quarterback hurries, one forced fumble and one pass breakup.
The results for those linebackers have been gigantic.
Lavey finished the season with a team-best 87 tackles (12.5 for loss), 2.5 sacks and three forced fumbles in the middle. Shaun Lewis (68 tackles, nine for loss, one sack, two forced fumbles, one quarterback hurry) and Simmons (62 tackles, 9.5 for loss, one sack, three quarterback hurries) also made a huge impact on the outside.
And Barnett's sometimes-unsung contribution certainly doesn't go unnoticed by the Cowboys.
“He makes it look so easy, so effortless,” Lewis said. “And I tell him all the time, if I just see an offensive lineman just getting thrown across the field during a play, I know where it came from, because he's just that dominant or that strong.”
Added defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer: “If (Barnett) was selfish, he would take chances. He would do something that was not in the scheme, and that would make us unsound. But just that attitude right there allows you to have a good defense.”
Overall, Spencer said Barnett has worked out about as well as anybody in the program could have hoped as a two-year transfer.
He upgraded a position that severely needed it. He made an immediate and significant difference, taking the Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year Award before earning those all-conference honors this season. And he did it on a fast track, one without the benefit or a redshirt season or extended time with strength and conditioning guru Rob Glass in offseason programs.
“You take a chance (when signing junior college players),” Spencer said. “When we signed Calvin, there's just that little bit of doubt in your mind.
“With junior college talent, you gotta be a little lucky, and there's a little bit of unknown. So yes, we got lucky. We're lucky to have him, and he's turned out to be a tremendous asset from Day 1.”
Barnett believes his best football is still ahead. He'll likely have that chance to play in the NFL, as CBS Sports currently projects him as a middle-round draft prospect.
But Barnett is thankful OSU let him finish his college career in Stillwater, especially after he flipped his commitment from the Cowboys to Arkansas on Signing Day in 2010.
He's also glad he's learned he doesn't always need to make the big play.
“As long as we're doing well as a defense and we're performing, I don't care if I make a play or not,” Barnett said. “That's been a difference for me this year.”