Cincinnati's Barnett moves to cornerback

Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett
CINCINNATI -- It didn't take long for Brian Kelly to pull a spring surprise.

The same coach who moved Connor Barwin from tight end to defensive end last season and turned former quarterback Demetrius Jones into a linebacker this winter had another switcheroo in store for Cincinnati's first spring practice on Tuesday. Marcus Barnett, one of the team's top receivers the past two years, was working with the defense at cornerback.

"This is our version of 'The Gong Show,'" Kelly joked after practice. "We just line them up and see how they look. If we don't like them, we try another guy. Tomorrow we're going to take a look at Tony Pike at nose guard."

At this point, anything seems possible. Barnett didn't look too bad in coverage, picking off a Pike pass and running it back for a score on one of the first plays of 7-on-7 drills. The fourth-year junior said he played strong safety in high school and that the defensive back skills came back to him pretty easily.

"I was excited that coach gave me the opportunity," Barnett said. "I joked about (playing cornerback) at the Orange Bowl. I was serious about it, but I was telling it to him jokingly."

The move speaks both to Barnett's willingness to help the team and to the Bearcats' question marks on defense. Cincinnati lost its two starting cornerbacks in Mike Mickens and DeAngelo Smith, and safety/corner Brandon Underwood was a senior, too. The team lost 10 starters on defense in all.

"We've got a lot of moving pieces right now and we've got a lot of talented players on both sides of the ball," Kelly said. "We're just trying to find out where the best pieces fit. It's really early to get into any kind of long term, where-are-we-going with this."

Barnett was a second-team All-Big East pick as a redshirt freshman, when he caught 62 passes for 862 yards and a team-best 14 touchdowns. Last season, his numbers dipped to 30 catches for 277 yards and just one score as he became the third option behind Mardy Gilyard and Dominick Goodman.

On Tuesday, USC transfer Vidal Hazelton was working out at Barnett's slot receiver position. Cincinnati is petitioning the NCAA so Hazelton can play right away this season instead of sitting out a year under transfer rules. If he does not win that appeal, Barnett may have to play receiver again in 2009, Kelly said. But the Bearcats have some depth at wideout with D.J. Woods, junior-college transfer Jamar Howard and others.

"Hopefully, I can go both ways," Barnett said. "That's what I would like to do. But I've got to get myself situated at corner first."

He wasn't given much time to adjust. Barnett was told on Monday, the day before spring practice began, that he would be moving to defense. During practice, he lined up with the first-team defense and was assigned to cover Gilyard, the team's leading receiver from a year ago.

"That's the best way to learn," Barnett said.

Barnett, who is listed at 6-foot-1 and 175 pounds, is nicknamed "Bones" because of his skinny, bag-of-bones frame. But he said he would have no problems making tackles or delivering hits. And after seeing Barwin lead the Big East in sacks last season and become a hot NFL prospect in his lone year on defense, Barnett is more than willing to take on this experiment.

"Connor took it in full stride and ... he's in the draft now," he said. "Hopefully that will be next for me."

That is, unless Kelly tries him at another position tomorrow.