Deion Barnes has always loved to play football.
He never thought he would love to coach it, too.
A former Northeast High and Penn State star, Barnes hasn’t given up his dream of playing at the professional level. He was a member of the San Antonio Commanders of the short-lived Alliance of American Football in the spring and holds out hope of another shot at the NFL.
“If an NFL team calls, I’m there,” said Barnes, who was a member of the New York Jets’ practice squad in 20150-16 and the Kansas City Chiefs’ practice squad in 2016. “I’m keeping myself in shape.”
Barnes has found another way to stay in the game. This is his third season as an assistant coach at his high school alma mater and his first as Northeast’s defensive coordinator.
Through three games, his defense has been ground-shaking good.
“It’s a lot better than I thought it would be,” Barnes said of coaching. “Just preparing the kids, teaching them techniques, and then seeing them go out there and execute, it’s definitely a great feeling.”
Barnes is the coordinator of perhaps the most accomplished defense in Southeastern Pennsylvania, at least through the early part of the season.
His Northeast defense is working on an active streak of 11 straight quarters without allowing a point. In the last two games, the Vikings pitched two shutouts, generated 12 takeaways, and scored four touchdowns.
“That’s all Deion,” Northeast head coach Phil Gormley said. “He has done an unbelievable job.”
In a 32-0 victory last Friday over previously unbeaten Penn Wood, Northeast registered five sacks and create four turnovers. One of them was returned 56 yards for a touchdown by junior linebacker Zaire “Horse” McLaurin.
In the Vikings’ 36-0 win over Haverford School on Aug. 31, the defense forced eight turnovers and returned three for touchdowns, as Tyrece Mills took a fumble back for a score and Shuayb “Shoes” Brinkley and McLaurin brought interceptions all the way to the end zone.
“When you watch the tape, guys are flying to the ball,” Barnes said. “There are seven, eight guys going to the ball.”
Northeast (3-0), the No. 5 team in The Inquirer’s Southeastern Pennsylvania Top 10, will host Episcopal Academy (2-0) on Friday night.
Barnes, a defensive end and linebacker as a player, focuses on the Northeast defensive line. He mentors two of the state’s top young prospects in junior Elijah Jeudy and sophomore Ken Talley.
The 6-foot-2, 230-pound Jeudy has 26 scholarship offers from programs such as LSU, Texas A&M, Penn State, Florida, and Baylor, among others. Jeudy racked up three sacks in the win over Penn Wood.
The 6-foot-3, 211-pound Talley has 12 offers from programs such as Penn State, Maryland, Baylor, and Florida. His sack against Penn Wood created the fumble that McLaurin returned for a touchdown.
“He’s been with Deion for two years and it shows – the hand skills and the stuff that you see on film,” Gormley said of Jeudy. “Deion has really worked with him and Kenny Talley and we have another end, [senior] Emanuel Sowell. Deion has done such a great job with those guys.”
Jeudy said Barnes has been a big factor in his development.
“He inspires me a lot,” Jeudy said. “He inspires me to work harder every day. Because at the end of the day, somebody is trying to eat off your plate. You have to work harder than the man behind you.”
At 26, Barnes is not that far removed from his players. He used to walk the same halls, wear the same uniform, deal with many of the same issues.
“I know how many people helped me and now I want to help them,” Barnes said. “When I was a player, at Northeast and at Penn State, I always liked to try to help the younger guys. I liked to try to spread information.
“I tell these kids, ‘I came from where you came from and I want to help you get where I got.’ ”
After every defensive series, Barnes gathers his athletes around him on the bench. Not so long ago, he was on the other side of those conversations.
He was an apt pupil, an all-state player in high school, the Big Ten freshman of the year at Penn State in 2012. He’s surprised at how much he’s enjoying being a teacher, too.