TEMPE, Ariz. — Blake Barnett and Manny Wilkins weren’t splitting pizzas and watching movies together when Barnett arrived on campus in January.
“Things were, I would say, kind of bitter at first,” Barnett said Saturday at ASU’s media day.
It was a rare glimpse inside the heated battle for Arizona State’s starting quarterback spot, but it wasn’t surprising. When Barnett announced he was transferring to ASU in December, some within the local media and Sun Devil fan base anointed him the starter because he arrived with such an impressive pedigree.
He was a five-star prospect in Alabama’s 2015 recruiting class, he was named MVP of the 2014 Elite 11 Quarterback competition and ESPN.com ranked him as the nation’s top pocket passer during his senior year at Santiago High School.
None of that sat well with Wilkins, who never enjoyed the advantages Barnett did growing up.
At some point during spring ball, both players had an epiphany.
“If our football team will see the quarterbacks, who are supposed to be the leaders, the quarterbacks who are supposed to set the standard of the team, if they see us bickering with each other or throwing shade at each other and stuff like that … that’s just negative and the energy that it brings is pitiful,” Wilkins said. “If you have that in any situation at any university that team will not be successful.”
A good working relationship with Wilkins won’t make unseating him any easier, but it’s one less hurdle for Barnett to cross as he tries to convince a coaching staff and a room full of players that he, not the lay-it-one-the-line leader they followed last season, should be the starter.
“It’s really hard for a quarterback or a leader to come in right away and command things, try to be in that dominant leadership role right away,” Barnett said. “You have to kind of realize, especially with the quarterback position and being new here, that eyes are on you whether it be a meeting, a practice, a workout. You really have to do everything in your power to ensure you are that guy that’s going to be able to exceed expectations and be an extension of the coaching staff.”
Barnett admitted his Alabama history added to that pressure.
“It is a standard that’s held for the team and from the outside world,” he said. “In all honesty, those pressures don’t come nearly as close to the pressure that I hold upon myself so it’s nothing that really bothers me or phases me. It come with the job; comes with the title.”
Barnett said he didn’t start feeling comfortable asserting himself until about midway through spring ball, but it’s an area he still cites as his top candidate for improvement
“In the spring, it was really about establishing myself,” he said. “That was more of a test just to see if I could do so from the team standpoint. I believe I have proven my worth in the stance of a leader and a player as well to the team.”
Barnett never expected to have the starting spot handed to him, and coach Todd Graham made it clear recently that Barnett is still the backup. But offensive coordinator Billy Napier made it plain this week that this is still very much a competition, with both players exhibiting progress in the new offense.
“We went back and cleaned it up,” Napier said. “We made it very teachable for our players (but) each guy was behind a little in certain areas. I think you saw Blake was a little more comfortable with certain things in the spring; same thing with (Manny). Now they’ve both caught up, and they’ve both made progress.”
Barnett believes he is ready to depose Wilkins.
“I’m aware of the fact that not everything I do is going to be perfect,” Barnett said. “I’m never going to be as good as they say I am and I’m never going to be as bad as they say I am, but I continually want to grow, improve daily, correct my mistakes and do everything I can to establish that role.
“I came here knowing that Manny was the starting quarterback; that he would be here next year but I have the belief in myself that I could come here and do that job. I feel my chances are good. I’m confident in myself. I’m confident in my ability.”
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