DeKALB – Garrett Barnas' responsibilities didn't lessen when he enrolled at Northern Illinois and switched to safety after playing quarterback at Harper Junior College.
Like his days as a NJCAA national championship-winning quarterback with the Hawks, Barnas has to call plays, read the opposition's formation, set up his team's formation and make audibles. It's all part of being an NIU safety, a position Huskies football coach Jerry Kill routinely calls "the quarterback of the defense."
"It is similar. As a quarterback, it's all in your hands," said Barnas, who had a career-high three tackles in a 31-17 win against Temple on Saturday. "You can make or break the game. Same with safety. If you let someone by you, that's a touchdown."
Barnas, fellow senior Mike Sobol, sophomores Tommy Davis and Demetrius Stone and freshman Jimmie Ward all have been forced to speak up over the past three weeks as NIU star safety and defensive leader Tracy Wilson has been sidelined with a nagging groin injury.
Kill said he again will employ a "safety-by-committee" lineup Saturday when NIU (4-2, 2-0 Mid-American Conference West) hosts Buffalo (2-3, 1-0 MAC East) as Wilson, a junior who coaches think is the team's best defensive player and best NFL prospect, will miss his fourth consecutive game after suffering the injury during the second half of a Week 3 loss at Illinois.
"Those muscle pulls, we're not going to take any chance," Kill said. "We're going to make sure he's healed up. We got a goal possibly for Central Michigan (on Oct. 23). That's a goal, but that may be a lofty goal."
The Huskies miss Wilson, but their secondary has held it together in his absence, allowing 276 passing yards over the past two games, both Huskies' wins.
Barnas had his biggest impact against Temple, while starters Sobol and Davis have combined for 28 tackles over the past three games.
Ward played sparingly against Temple but had eight tackles in the previous two games, while Stone has taken reps in the past two games after missing the three prior with an injury.
"They're all learning," Kill said. "It's a learning curve."
Sobol, who has started 23 games over the past three years, has taken the more inexperienced NIU safeties under his wing, while Wilson has given advice from the sidelines.
"Everything's just coming really good into place, and we're all playing together as a secondary unit, I feel right now," Sobol said. "Without Tracy, it's definitely been a hit. But we're all just playing as hard as we can and everything's been working out for us."
Sobol said Barnas has been one of his quickest studies and that the former signal caller proved he can quarterback the Huskies defense during his performance against the Owls.
"I think it's definitely helped me out since I've played quarterback because I've kind of read a lot of defenses in my day," Barnas said. "The communication here is a little more advanced, but I'm starting to learn a lot more this year."