Highly-recruited athletes are sometimes disappointed when they get to college and find out they are not in the game plan in their first season, that they have been relegated to scout team work, practicing against the game players, but turning into spectators on Saturdays.
Blake Barnett, a five-star prospect out of Corona, Calif., was the most valuable player in the Elite 11 competition, led his team to the championship in the Under Armour All-America game, and was ranked among the top three quarterbacks in the nation. He arrived in Tuscaloosa in January last year and was able to take part in spring practice.
By all accounts, he was very impressive. But when it came down to the starting job last year, Barnett was not in the mix. The starting job went to senior Jacob Coker, who led Bama to the national championship, with then-sophomore Cooper Bateman the backup.
For the third consecutive year, Alabama will be looking for a new starting quarterback, and most expect Barnett to be strongly competitive with Bateman and sophomore David Cornwell.
This is the fourth and final installment in a four-part series on the Alabama quarterback competition for 2016.
It was Barnett’s lot to be the scout team quarterback last fall, but he doesn’t look on that as a bad thing.
"Just tried to come in here and adapt as fast as I could and try to bring as much pressure as I could to the competition,” Barnett said. “Obviously all the quarterbacks are in the mix, it was pretty hectic at times, and it was tough for me to learn and try to compete at the same time, and that's what I think I struggled with the most. But going through that I think I learned a lot and adapted well.
"I think the year was a big learning process -- getting adapted to how the team works, getting to know every one on the team, the coaching staff, and getting familiar with the offense and how everything really works. But I think I got a lot experience even though I was doing mainly scout team. With that said, you get to go against the No. 1 defense every day and practicing against them and improving my overall game.
"It was just finding your role and mine was trying to get our defense prepared for the game they had. So it was different learning different offenses and stuff, but it was nice because it teaches you to adapt. And going against the No. 1 defense, it's going to be a challenge every week."
What'd you learn specifically?
"Familiarizing (myself) with the offense. I think by the end of camp I pretty much had it down, unlike last spring. I was still pretty much somewhat familiar with the offense. And then still getting to know all the team, the coaches and how everyone cooperates. So I learned a lot. And the speed of the game going against the defense all the time. It puts it in perspective."
Barnett said it’s hard to accept being held out, but that he accepted his role. “You have to look at the bigger picture,” he said. “My role was to help the defense improve, but at the same time improve my game and get ready for the future.
“It’s not a wasted year; not wasted, but gone, so it’s nice to have another year of eligibility to prepare for the future.”
During preparation for the Cotton Bowl, Alabama Quarterbacks Coach and Offensive Coordinator Lane Kiffin said, “Blake has done a great job. He didn’t do as much with us as he did in the spring and in camp, because he does a lot of the service (scout) team stuff. I think he’s helped our defense a lot in the age of the quarterback with mobility. We play so many of those type guys.
“A guy who has mobility adds problems for the defense, much like Blake Sims a year ago. I don’t know what Blake’s future is. He has a lot of work to do. We have a ways to go with him. But to date we’ve been very pleased with him.”
“He’s done a phenomenal job, has given our defense problems. He’s really grown in the classroom, understands things, made the transition from high school to college. He’s really done a great job.”
Kirby Smart, who left Alabama following the season to become Georgia’s head coach, was Alabama’s defensive coordinator and took note of the quarterback who was running the scout team offense.
Smart said, “Blake has done a great job. He’s got great mobility, makes good decisions, he’s a competitor, he gives us his best every day, he’s a good leader, he keeps the scout team organized, he along with Cornwell do a good job of kind of pushing those guys and challenging them. He’s done a good job.
“I think he’s gotten frustrated a little bit because those big guys push on him, and it’s not like he’s got the best offensive line in the world in front of him. But he is a competitor and I can tell you he’s grown up a lot this year.”
Mel Tucker, who coached Bama’s safeties last year and has gone with Smart to Georgia as defensive coordinator, said, “Blake has done a really good job. He has a good presence. It’s very competitive. He enjoys playing the game. He’s very consistent. Day-in and day-out you know what you’re going to get from him. He competes well, he throws a really nice ball, and he’s got tremendous athletic ability…he can challenge you as a runner both as a scrambler and with quarterback runs. He gives us every type of look that we need. Whatever we need him to do, he can do it, and the players around him respond. As a coach, I have a high level of respect for Blake.”
Tosh Lupoi, who coaches outside linebackers, joined in the chorus of praise. Lupoi said, “Blake has showed a lot of progress, and I think everyone’s excited – I’m excited and we’re all excited – at what he has shown already against us. He’s done a great job insofar as getting us better and having a guy we have to chase down, a guy who can accurately throw, and who is giving us a good picture as we face all of these great quarterbacks that we’ve seen throughout the season.
“Blake has a pretty solid combination of being able to run away from you when he needs to, as well as throw the ball well. That’s why we recruited him here to Alabama. He was an exceptional player coming out of high school, and he’s shown a lot of the reasons why we recruited him.”
As a senior at Santiago High School, Barnett threw for 3,404 yards and 23 touchdowns and ran for 479 yards and 7 TDs in 11 games.
Barnett expects the quarterback competition to be tough. "I think it could be anyone's job honestly,” he said. “We saw how close we came this year and it literally came down to the wire, and even some into the season. I think next year will be interesting and I'm looking forward to the competition."
He said that Alabama Coach Nick Saban and Kiffin had told him “to keep working. Work hard in the off-season and work hard on myself.”
To that end, he’ll spend part of the summer in California working with famed quarterbacks coach George Whitfield. Barnett said, “He’s so knowledgeable about the game. He’s taught me a lot and improved my game a drastic amount.
Alabama cornerback Marlon Humphrey said, “Blake Barnett was different than what I expected. He’s a lot more shifty. He needs to add some weight, but he’s a good quarterback. I think all of our quarterbacks are good.”
That weight thing comes up a lot. The 6-5 quarterback came to Alabama at just under 200 pounds.
Barnett said, "It's been a big factor. Just that overall adapting and obviously being able to compete with these guys you're going to have to put on weight to be able to survive in the SEC. So it's been part of it. I've been in the weight room almost every day with Coach (Scott) Cochran and really working on that."
"I'm about 205 right now and I've lost a lot of body fat and put on a lot more muscle. So I'm at a good 205 right now. I'm stronger than I've ever been."