The Havelock Rams had their backs against the end zone at the 1-yard line last August early in the second game of the 2017 season against Craven County rival New Bern.
Leading only 13-7 at the time, Havelock coach Caleb King had specific instructions for senior Khalil Barrett before sending the offense onto the field.
“I told Khalil, ‘Don’t get tackled in the end zone,”’ King said. “He looked me right in the eye and said, ‘Coach, they’ll never touch me.”’
And they didn’t.
Barrett took a direct snap in a Wildcat formation and set sail on what would be a 99-yard touchdown run. The play started a spree of 35 unanswered points as the Rams went on to a 48-18 triumph against the Bears.
It’s that confidence and big-play ability that brought East Carolina’s coaching staff back around to Havelock in pursuit of Barrett just before the early signing period in December. The 5-foot-11, 200-pounder had already made a verbal commitment to Coastal Carolina when the Pirates began a late push for him on Friday before the early signing period started December 20th.
Barrett took a visit to campus on Dec. 17 and a day later backed off his pledge to Coastal Carolina and committed to the Pirates. He was then one of 19 players ECU signed during the early period.
“I really felt comfortable with the coaches at East Carolina,” Barrett said. “I had an OK bond with them before I visited, but the visit kind of sealed things. I went home and talked about it with my father, and decided ECU was where I wanted to be.”
The signing of Barrett continues a pipeline between Havelock and ECU, which has produced such Pirate notables as former defensive end Cary Godette, offensive lineman Guy Whimper, receiver Danny Webster and until recently running back Derrell Scott. Scott, who was scheduled to be a senior in 2018, announced in early January he’ll be transferring to another school for his final college season.
Barrett, who has been recruited to play a hybrid safety-linebacker position, hails from a prominent athletic family in the Havelock community. His father, Michael, was a basketball star for the Rams back in the early 1990s and his uncle was a track and field star at Havelock who still owns the school long jump record.
Then there’s his cousin, Bruce Carter, the former Havelock and North Carolina linebacker star who earned second-team All-Atlantic Coast Conference honors for the Tar Heels in 2009 and 2010 before being taken in the second round of the 2011 NFL draft. Carter spent the 2017 season with the NFL’s New York Jets.
Despite those family connections to athletics, Barrett wasn’t exactly enthusiastic about getting involved in sports when he was younger.
“I wasn’t really into sports, but when I was five one of my dad’s friends wanted me to try out for football,” Barrett said. “I tried football and basketball, and liked basketball better. So I stopped playing football from the fourth to the sixth grade. But in the sixth grade I started playing tackle in Pop Warner, and that’s when I really got into it.”
King was an assistant coach at Havelock when Barrett arrived as a freshman in 2014. Because of the family connections to the athletic program there, King was already aware of Barrett. But even King was surprised by Barrett in preseason training camp that year.
“As a freshman, he was the fastest [Havelock] kid I’d ever timed (in 40-yard dash) in the last 14 years coming in as a freshman,” King said.
Barrett, who has been timed at 4.4 seconds in the 40-yard dash, would become one of the few freshmen to suit up for the Havelock varsity. He appeared in nine games that season on a 14-2 team that reached the state 3-A finals and featured future Football Bowl Subdivision recruits Keion Joyner and Kyran Bowman. Joyner signed with Florida State, but was unable to enroll, while Bowman initially committed to UNC for football, but instead wound up focusing on hoops at Boston College where he’s one of the ACC’s top guards this season.
Getting most of his playing time on defense, Barrett made 11 tackles, two tackles for loss and a sack as a freshman.
“Playing for Havelock, you want to live up to the name on the front of your jersey,” Barrett said. “So it was a big deal to play varsity as a freshman. A lot of great athletes had come through there, and I didn’t want to be a nobody. I wanted to be one of them. I looked up to all those guys when I was younger, like Pharoh Cooper and Derrell Scott. I wanted to be like them and play for a state championship.”
Barrett would achieve those goals over the next three seasons.
Havelock’s 2015 season ended in the second round of the state 3-A playoffs. Barrett started to see action on offense as a sophomore, making five catches for 104 yards and two touchdowns. But his main role was still on defense where he collected 19 tackles, a quarterback sack and three interceptions.
Barrett’s focus shifted to offense as a junior when he ranked second in team receiving with 42 catches for 598 yards and five touchdowns. He also contributed 128 yards on kickoff returns and five tackles for a team that went 13-2 and reached the state 3-A semifinals.
It was as a senior, however, that Barrett enjoyed a breakthrough performance. He rushed 96 times for 1,105 yards and 17 scores, made 84 catches for 1,050 yards and 13 touchdowns and made eight tackles on defense to earn Coastal 3-A Conference Player of the Year honors. The Rams once again advanced to the state 3-A title game before falling to Charlotte Catholic.
During Barrett’s four seasons, Havelock produced a 53-7 overall record.
King has coached many of the great players who have developed in the Havelock program over the last decade and ranks Barrett among the best.
“Every player is different, so I hate to compare him to this guy or that guy,” King said. “Khalil is his own guy and an incredible person. He is a team guy first. He’s always thinking about his teammates and takes great pride in being a great teammate. East Carolina is just really fortunate to be getting a player like Khalil. I think he’ll immediately make an impact for them on special teams coverage. His ability to tackle is really good.”
Barrett’s plan heading to ECU is the same one he had entering the Havelock program as a freshman.
“I feel like I can come in and earn playing time,” he said. “I have a lot of speed and quickness and I have a nose for the ball. I think the sky is the limit for me.”