From Tuscaloosa to Tempe to Tampa: The long, winding road of new USF QB Blake Barnett
The redshirt junior hopes to kickstart his career with the Bulls in 2018
Blake Barnett almost had his shot with the school he chose to play for coming out of high school.
The week after Alabama lost at home to Ole Miss in 2015 -- a game in which then-redshirt sophomore Cooper Batman got a surprise start in place of Jake Coker -- Barnett spent consistent time working with the second-team offense. Despite the initial plan to redshirt, Barnett began to taste success and progress he expected after signing with the Crimson Tide the previous winter as a five-star prospect.
It was only a taste.
Barnett began to feel intense pain in his midsection but tried to fight through it as much as he could knowing that becoming the starting quarterback of the Crimson Tide was within his reach. After going through tests, Barnett and the team doctors discovered a small cut in his small intestine was causing internal bleeding. A blood test revealed that his red blood cell count was seven when it should have been 14.
The condition was called an "illness," by the Alabama staff publicly at the time, and Barnetton his social media accounts. But the condition, combined with the missed time after being released from the hospital, was a major setback for the then-true freshman.
"I had half the amount of blood in my system than I was supposed to," Barnett told CBS Sports. "They immediately checked me into the ER. They did two blood transfusions, an iron transfusion, and I had to have four tests done on me in a matter of two days. I lost about 20 pounds from the medical issues and lost about another week of practice time after that. When I came back, I went straight back to the scout team."
The Crimson Tide won the national championship under Coker's guidance, and dual-threat quarterback Jalen Hurts enrolled in school in January 2016. Barnett got the start against USC in the season opener in Arlington, Texas, that September but was quickly replaced by Hurts in the blowout win over the Trojans.
By the end of September, Barnett decided to leave. The conversation with coach Nick Saban was tough, but one that he felt he needed to have in order to live out his football dream.
"It's not that I don't want to be here," Barnett says he told Saban. "But I want to play. I want to make the best decisions I can for my career."
Barnett headed to Palomar College in his native California, where he quickly enrolled, met the required benchmarks and joined Arizona State in January 2017. Rules stated that Barnett would miss the first four games of the 2017 season in order to make it one calendar year since his departure from Alabama, but he won an appeal to the NCAA to play immediately.
Then, he was dealt another curveball.
The initial plan for Barnett was to unite with then-Sun Devil offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey and battle returning starter Manny Wilkins for the top spot on the depth chart. But Lindsey left to take the same role with Auburn shortly after Barnett arrived on campus, and former Crimson Tide wide receiver coach Billy Napier -- who was on the Alabama staff when Barnett was there -- took over as the new Sun Devil coordinator.
The battle between Wilkins and Barnett never materialized. Barnett completed only three of his five passes for 40 yards and one interception in 2017. Despite the arrival of new coach Herm Edwards, Wilkins' spot as the unquestioned starting quarterback was essentially set in stone.
"The first week of [spring] practice, new offensive coordinator Rob Likens (who was the wide receivers coach in 2017) goes to the media and says, 'Barnett and Dillon Sterling-Cole were going to be competing for the second string position'," Barnett said. "I was like, 'oh, come on.' Those were the cards getting played, and it is what it is."
Despite the frustration, Barnett knows that only one person should be blamed for his Arizona State experience not working out.
"I made the mistake of going to a school that already established a starting quarterback, Barnett said. "That was my fault. It's really hard to stray away from that, and I completely understand it. If [2017 head coach] Todd Graham and coach Napier were on the same page, they knew they had a guy from the year before and want to build off that. I completely understand that. I wish I would have thoroughly thought that through beforehand. That's not to say I didn't enjoy my time in Tempe; I truly love Arizona State, I think it's a great school and I think the program is headed in the right direction."
That direction is Tampa, where he will join a South Florida program that is looking for a new starting quarterback to step in for the recently-departed Quinton Flowers. With two years of eligibility left, Barnett believes he has a chance to beat out redshirt junior Brett Kean and redshirt sophomore Chris Oladokun to earn the top spot on the depth chart.
"From my impressions, it will be a competition," Barnett said. "That's all I could ask for. That's really all I asked for going to Arizona State -- an opportunity to compete. I understand that starting jobs aren't promised, and that's what I expect from a coach. That's my biggest thing about going to South Florida. Tampa's beautiful, I love the coaching staff, I like [offensive coordinator] Sterlin Gilbert a lot. I like coach Charlie Strong a lot. He seems like a very good man."
Comfort with the coaching staff off the field was a big factor. Married with a newborn son, the 22-year-old was looking for a place that's a perfect fit professionally and personally.
"When I went on a visit there about two weeks before I decided to join the program, the biggest thing for me was to try to find realness," he said. "Find anything genuine about the coaches. I actually went on the visit with my wife and my son, and it was a completely different visit. It was more family-oriented than anything else, which I appreciate greatly. I went to dinner with the coaches and their families, and they were very concerned about how me and my wife felt being there, which said a lot. It felt like a family."
Barnett doesn't want to viewed as a journeyman, a player who's afraid of competition or a player who has bailed on teammates twice. That's not him.
"I'm very fortunate," he said. "I won a national championship, had plenty of adversity and learned from it. Everything in my life has been a complete blessing. Had it not happened, I wouldn't be where I am today. I feel like I've grown a lot as a player and a man."
He's hoping to grow into the quarterback many thought he was coming out of high school with the Bulls.
Better late than never.
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