TEMPE, Ariz. — A sense of entitlement has never accompanied Blake Barnett’s football career. Maybe that’s because Barnett has always maintained such a modest opinion of his ability — even as an 8-year-old defensive end for the Corona (California) Chargers.
“I was probably the most uncoordinated kid you’ve ever seen,” Barnett said at the Sun Devil football team’s spring mini-media day on Wednesday at the Carson Student-Athlete Center. “I was kind of fast and could kind of throw the ball a little bit, but I was 8 years old and I didn’t really know how to use my body.”
When Barnett finally became the starting varsity quarterback at Santiago High School in his junior season, he didn’t know if he would be recruited by any colleges, let alone the nation’s premier college football program: Alabama. And when he transferred to Arizona State as a five-star prospect, ESPN’s top-rated pocket passer in the 2015 recruiting class and the MVP of the 2014 Elite 11 Quarterback competition, Barnett did not do so with the expectation of starting; only the goal.
“I wouldn’t expect that,” Barnett said. “I want to find a place where I can compete and hopefully contribute to the team as best I can.”
Barnett, a redshirt sophomore, will get that chance at ASU, and he will do so with a familiar face playing a major role in determining the starter: new offensive coordinator Billy Napier, who was the Crimson Tide’s wide receivers coach while Barnett was at Alabama.
“Any time you’ve got a little bit of a comfort level with someone it helps the relationship and what you’re trying to do,” Napier said. “You’re adding a guy to a pool of quarterbacks that is capable of playing winning football and so you’re making it even more competitive.
“Blake’s a better than average athlete, he’s got good tools and he’s got good accuracy, but playing the QB position is not necessarily about his skill set to me as much as it is about good decision making and really about affecting the players you play with. They should all be better because they play with you.”
Napier and Sun Devils head coach Todd Graham stressed that this year’s QB competition will be an open one, and at least five of ASU’s six players believe they can challenge for that spot among last season’s starter, redshirt junior Manny Wilkins; Barnett, who was granted a full three seasons of eligibility; redshirt sophomore Brady White; sophomore Dillon Sterling-Cole; redshirt sophomore Bryce Perkins; and freshman Ryan Kelley, who is a strong candidate for a redshirt year.
“It’s a clean slate,” Napier said. “I tell every offensive player the same thing: ‘I’m evaluating your actions. It’s not what you tell me you’re doing. Show me you’re committed as a teammate, play with great effort, great toughness, show me you’ve got tremendous self discipline in your daily approach and we can count on you.’
“We’re going to spread these reps out over spring practice and the summer program and this competition and battle will go into the season. At some point or another, somebody is going to prove they are the guy and it may be the guy you least suspect.”
Barnett thought he had that opportunity at Alabama, but the way the competition unfolded still puzzles him to this day. Barnett was the opening-day starter for the Crimson Tide, which lost an epic national championship game to Clemson, but Jalen Hurts replaced him after two series in the season opener against USC, and then became the full-time starter.
“A lot of things happened there where I’m not really sure why they unfolded they way they did,” said Barnett, who committed to Alabama for the chance to work with recently departed offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, and for the lure of a nationally prominent program.
In hindsight, Barnett chalks the experience up as a lesson learned.
“Never take anything for granted,” he said. “You never really know the circumstances that are going to be put in front of you. Your role, whatever situation you’re in is to do as much as you can, and that’s what was really hard for me is that I truly believe I did as much as I can; I believe I did everything the coaching staff asked from me and I believe I honestly did more. I’m not saying that to be braggadocious. I’m just saying that because I truly believe it.
“I’m a firm believer in my work ethic and I’m a firm believer in doing what I have to do and going beyond that. I believe I did that there. The situation unfolded, not really the way I would want it to but things happen for a reason.”
Over the past few months, Barnett started to forge a relationship with former ASU offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey, so he admitted it was startling when Lindsey left ASU in January to take the same position at Auburn.
“It was a little surprising; not in a negative way. It was just kind of unexpected,” Barnett said. “I didn’t make my decision based off of one coach — for anyone to do that in college football would be silly.”
Napier’s arrival helped smooth that wrinkle and has helped Barnett settle in with spring ball approaching.
“I’ve been with him for almost two years. He knows my skill-set, I know how he is as a coach,” Barnett said. “It’s not like I was in the meetings with him every day but I’d see him just about every single day, make small talk with him. It’s almost like a co-worker or partial boss for two years. The relationship that I have with him is great and it’s a good foundation.”