STILLWATER — An uneasy feeling swept over Calvin Barnett, the kind of stomach-dropping emotion commonly felt when a student is called to the principal's office.
He essentially had been. Following Oklahoma State's loss at Arizona last September, Barnett was notified that coach Mike Gundy wanted to discuss the three personal fouls — two on the same play — the defensive tackle had committed in his second game as a Cowboy.
“Getting that call, when you're new,” Barnett recalled, “It's like, ‘Oh, man.'”
Both player and coach say now that meeting was exclusively positive. And Barnett cleaned up his act, committing just two personal fouls during the rest of a 2012 season that ended with him being named the Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year.
Now, Barnett is viewed as an important leader for the 2013 defense.
“He loves to play football, and he brings an air about him when he plays,” Gundy said. “And more importantly, he does it in practice. So, that's what allows him to be a leader.”
That's rare for junior college transfers, Gundy said, because those players often simply aren't on campus long enough to form bonds or make lasting impacts on teammates. And Barnett's growing leadership role may seem odd to some outsiders, because those early examples of out-of-control play did somewhat overshadow on a strong first season where he consistently plugged the middle, frequently got in the opposing backfield and finished with 30 tackles (8.5 for loss), one sack, four quarterback hurries and one pass breakup.
Because of OSU's policy that does not allow first-year players to speak to the media, Barnett could not publicly explain his actions, express remorse or vow he'd attempt to change following that Arizona game.
But he could do all of the above in that meeting in Gundy's office.
“He accepted the responsibility and said, ‘OK, I know exactly what you're talking about,'” Gundy said. “Sometimes they do that and sometimes they don't. If they don't, then it's always an issue because they don't ever really think it's their fault.
Added Barnett: “(Gundy) was just letting it be known that I needed to change some things. I let him know, ‘Yeah, of course.' I'm not OK with costing the team that many yards. Myself, I need to change that if I was going to be part of that defense.”
Most importantly, Barnett improved his behavior on the field as he worked to reshape his reputation.
“No one wants to be looked at in that kind of way,” Barnett said. “To be honest, I was just playing. But of course, I learned that I couldn't do that on this level. I just changed it.”
Gundy feels he “failed” Barnett, in a way, because he initially didn't identify Barnett as a player who could potentially lose his composure and address the issue with him sooner. New defensive line coach Joe Bob Clements did have an early discussion with Barnett about personal fouls and now is confident Barnett will no longer allow aggressive play to turn into reckless play.
“It's easy for me to try to turn you down,” Clements said. “But don't make me be the type of guy that has to turn you up.”
Since last season ended, Barnett has worked on improving his 6-2, 300-pound body, cutting out red meat and fruit punch and making sure he's better conditioned for the fourth quarter of Big 12 games. And he's tried to set an example by consistently going to class or giving top-notch effort in practice.
“I just try to do my job,” Barnett said. “At the end of the day, if I don't do my job, then I can't try to be a leader in any way.”
Barnett doesn't look at 2012 as a standout individual season and is ready to have an even bigger impact as a senior. Gundy believes Barnett has the potential to develop into an NFL defensive tackle.
And Clements, who most recently coached Big 12 Defensive Lineman of the Year Meshak Williams at Kansas State, has even higher expectations.
“The next step for Calvin is establishing himself as the best defensive lineman in the Big 12,” he said. “Now he's going to be in the boat with everybody, and he needs to go out there and prove on a week-in and week-out basis that he's a dominant defensive player.”