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Michael Barrett and the Road Less Traveled

The Michigan linebacker took the long road to success and leaves Ann Arbor as the winningest player in program history.

Rose Bowl Game - Alabama v Michigan Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Despite being categorized as a three-star recruit, everyone with the power of sight could tell Michael Barrett was going to be special coming out of high school. A dual-threat quarterback from Georgia, Barrett was widely projected as a wide receiver or running back at the next level when he committed to Michigan.

He would play those positions and, in total, Barrett would play slot receiver, running back, viper (hybrid outside linebacker), wildcat quarterback, special teams ace, and inside linebacker before it was all said and done. Through it all, the only thing Barrett did more than switch positions was win.

Barrett has played in 64 games for the Michigan Wolverines and has won 52 of them, making him the winningest player in the 144-year history of Michigan’s storied program. A legacy that will be impossible to replicate, but a legacy that will also be misremembered by most.

Every fan will remember Barrett as the hard-hitting, versatile linebacker whose big plays were only matched by his leadership as a team captain. But most will forget the impossibly long road Barrett took to cement this legacy. Let’s take a look back at key wins and losses throughout Barrett’s career to understand why the road less traveled made him who he is today.

Win No. 4 - Army

After a learning-curve season as a true freshman in 2018 — two games, two special teams appearances — Barrett quickly carved out a role as a special teams weapon in 2019. Trailing Army in the shockingly hard-fought second game of the season, Barrett threw a 25-yard pass on a fake punt to extend a drive that would eventually tie the game. Michigan would escape in overtime.

Win No. 11 - Minnesota

After two years of self-discovery on and off the field, it was finally Barrett’s turn. The junior found a home at the viper position in Don Brown’s defense and after the departure of veteran Khaleke Hudson, Barrett was ready to showcase his ability to the world.

The impact of COVID-19 delayed this impact, but in the first game of the adjusted season against Minnesota, Barrett quickly made up for lost time. On a disguised blitz off the edge, Barrett flies into the backfield, chops his steps to play the run, and explodes into quarterback Tanner Morgan for a forced fumble/touchdown for the Michigan defense. Turn the volume up for this one.

Like Nuke wanting to announce his presence with authority in Bull Durham — “He ain’t seen my heat!” — in this one play, everyone knew Barrett with the way he brought the heat.

Loss No. 9 - Penn State

In the final game of the disappointing 2020 season, Barrett posted a career-high 11 tackles in a loss to Penn State. The season was undeniably a colossal disappointment, but Barrett remained one of the few glimmers of hope. After an extensive house cleaning and a staff overhaul, the rising senior faced a decision.

After three years, Barrett had appeared in 21 games and posted a record of 12-9. His defensive coordinator was now gone. The position where he had finally found a home had been eliminated. Entering his senior year, the new defensive staff quickly informed Barrett he would not be a starter for Team 142.

Most would have transferred, most would have said, “F— this” and gone on to pursue glory in warmer weather. That’s what Joe Milton, Zach Charbonnet and Giles Jackson, among others, decided.

But that’s not Michael Barrett. He decided to stay in Ann Arbor and finish what he started at whatever position he could.

Win No. 14 - Washington

Everyone remembers running back Blake Corum’s electric touchdown against Washington in 2021. Like a missile, Corum shoots through the line of scrimmage and dashes to the end zone before a Washington defender could even put a hand on him. Several key players helped spring this 67-yard sprint, including Barrett.

One play prior, facing its third straight punt and second three-and-out of the game, Michigan was backed up on its own 30-yard line facing a fourth-and-one. Head coach Jim Harbaugh sent out the punting unit, which included non-starting defender Barrett, to kick the ball away. But just like Michigan had done two years prior against Army, the team turned to Barrett for a spark.

Barrett took the direct snap and plowed his way forward three yards for a first down, extended the drive, and on the next play, Corum was off to the races. Barrett had accepted a diminished role, but was not going to allow that to diminish his impact on winning.

Loss No. 10 - Michigan State

When Michigan lost to Michigan State in 2021, all hell broke loose. All of the unexpected goodwill that had built up surrounding the program evaporated and fingers were mainly pointed at the defense.

First-year coordinator Mike Macdonald had struggled with substitutions and tempo against the Spartans and was in search of answers. Michigan needed a more versatile linebacker in pass coverage without completely sacrificing run support. Michigan needed a hybrid athlete. Michigan needed Michael Barrett.

Following the Michigan State loss, Barrett made his first career start at inside linebacker against Indiana and posted four tackles in a runaway victory. While he wasn’t a mainstay as a starter the rest of the year, Barrett became a rotational chess piece Macdonald could deploy against certain teams and specific personnel. This increased role didn’t lessen his special team duties either.

Against Maryland, Barrett channeled his decorated high school quarterback skills when he fielded a kick-off and threw a lateral across the field to A.J. Henning, which he would proceed to take in for a touchdown.

Without Barrett, Michigan would not have snapped a 10-year skid against Ohio State or won the Big Ten Championship. When faced with the darkest moment of their season, the Wolverines turned to Barrett to lead them back into the light.

Win No. 25 - Colorado State

Barrett was not supposed to be the starter in 2022. Rising superstar sophomore Junior Colson and Nikhai Hill-Green were projected to control the middle of Michigan’s defense, with Barrett playing a key rotational role. But after an unfortunate training camp injury that proved to be season-ending for Hill-Green, Barrett was ready when his number was called.

In the season opener against Colorado State, Barrett finished second on the team with six tackles, and mixed in one sack and one tackle for loss in a shortened afternoon for the starters. It was a full-circle moment for Barrett and a glimpse of what Michigan would see the rest of the season.

Win No. 33 - Rutgers

The undefeated Wolverines were struggling against Rutgers. Down a few key players on the road, Michigan was clinging to a four-point lead in the second half and needed a spark. On Rutger’s second possession of the half, Barrett provided it with a clutch interception to set the Wolverines up at the 10-yard line and an eventual touchdown. On Rutgers’ next possession, Barrett did himself one better.

On a tipped ball, Barrett secured his second interception, spun out of a tackle and raced to the end zone for his first career touchdown. Until this game, Barrett had largely been relied upon to spark the team through special teams plays, while being a reliable, versatile force for the defense. But this performance cemented the fact Barrett could be a game-breaker and a star in his own right.

Loss No. 12 - TCU

After a full season of proving his merit as a defensive starter, Barrett helped lead the Wolverines back into the College Football Playoff (CFP). But against underdog TCU, Barrett had his worst game as a starter. Time and time again, Barrett and the linebackers were out of position in run fits, struggled in pass coverage, and the team squandered a golden opportunity to advance to the National Championship.

Following the disappointing end to the season, Barrett and several other players had a decision to make: leave for the NFL or stay and finish the mission they started. For the second time in his career, Barrett chose to stay.

When speaking to Jon Jansen about his decision to return, Barrett spoke about leadership and his desire to win.

“I just want to become the best version of myself and the best leader on the team. I want to just keep elevating” he said. “I feel like I’ve changed over the course of last season in so many ways and I just want to continue the growth of myself, personally, and just being a leader on this team and just go win football games.”

Barrett entered the 2023 season as a starter, team captain, and one of the most important players on the defense. In order to complete his journey and become the best version of himself, Barrett had to do it on the biggest stage.

Win No. 51 - Alabama

Back on the CFP stage and hellbent on correcting the mistakes from the year prior, Barrett played the best football of his life against Alabama. He finished with nine tackles, one tackle for loss and one sack in the 27-20 overtime win over the Crimson Tide.

Statistics aside, Barrett was integral to slowing down dynamic quarterback Jalen Milroe, and defensive coordinator Jesse Minter used Barrett’s diverse skills like an anecdote to eradicate Milroe’s impact on the game.

Barrett would follow up this performance with another great outing in the National Championship victory over Washington, but the Rose Bowl performance was Barrett’s magnum opus. The Rose Bowl was Barrett using every skill he had accumulated during his time in Ann Arbor to win a football game.

For six years, Michael Barrett was whatever Michigan needed him to be, and in his penultimate performance, he was everything at once.

The road less traveled isn’t for everyone, but for Barrett — the winningest player in the history of Michigan football — it made all the difference.