TAMPA — He had them at “steak.”
Oh sure, USF second-year quarterback Blake Barnett evolved into the billboard face of the program, partially via his work habits, the kinship he built with receivers, and the camaraderie he gradually forged in the locker room.
But he didn’t truly win over his peers until he won their palates. Turns out, Barnett is adept in the sous vide method of preparing steaks, vacuum-sealing the meat in a bag and cooking it to a specific temperature in water.
“Now that he’s taught me and a bunch of other guys on the team, we’re totally changed,” senior tight end Mitch Wilcox said. “I haven’t grilled since I’ve learned about this, because I don’t want to do it any other way. It’s that good.”
For his next culinary endeavor, Barnett will attempt slicing and dicing, perhaps some shredding. If he can do that to opponents within the context of offensive coordinator Kerwin Bell’s system, he’ll endear himself to his fan base.
For now, endearing himself to teammates is sufficient. Fifteen months into his Tampa tenure, the journeyman collegian has asserted himself as a de facto — if not actual — captain.
It’s hardly a stretch to suggest this is Barnett’s team now.
“I can say last year he was kind of more timid really, but now he’s more vocal,” senior receiver Stanley Clerveaux said.
“Now, he’s even playing pingpong in the locker room. He’s doing more. You can tell he’s a leader now, he’s grown into it. And he’s comfortable, really.”
This time last year, Barnett was a scrambling quarterback, in every sense: scrambling to acclimate he and his young family to a new city, scrambling to learn Sterlin Gilbert’s veer-and-shoot offense, and scrambling to develop trust among new teammates.
A Southern California native, Barnett had arrived — with his wife and 2-month-old son in tow — after one season in 2017 as a backup at Arizona State.
That followed a year and change at Alabama, where Barnett won the starting job as a redshirt freshman in 2016 but was replaced in the season opener by Jalen Hurts. Barnett transferred shortly thereafter.
Upon arriving at USF as a graduate transfer, he won a three-player quarterback derby in August, then grimaced his way through a productive but painful season.
Brandishing a mobility belying his 6-foot-5 frame, Barnett completed 61.1 percent of his passes for 2,710 yards, 12 touchdowns and 11 interceptions; and he ran for 301 yards and eight touchdowns.
He also battled lingering shoulder soreness, then tore calf muscles in his right leg in Game 11 at Temple that sidelined him the following week against UCF.
“The Gasparilla Bowl (a loss to Marshall), I had gotten sick for like four days prior to that, and I played at probably 199 (pounds),” he said.
Seven months later, Barnett carries a larger frame and larger presence. He’s also entering his second year in the same program for the first time since 2016.
With the help of a personal nutritionist, he has added roughly 20 pounds, with the goal of playing at around 230 this season. He also immersed himself in Bell’s diverse scheme, for which he doesn’t suppress his excitement.
During breaks in the Bulls’ spring schedule, he flew to Huntington Beach, Calif., where he trained at 3DQB, an academy that combines “biomechanics training with motion analysis,” and whose clientele includes Tom Brady and Drew Brees.
Barnett also remained in touch with another personal coach, George Whitfield, with whom he has trained for roughly a half-decade.
“I was able to pick up a bunch of information,” Barnett said. “I just wanted to soak everything in. This is my last chance in college, so I wanted to come here prepared. This is an offense that I think fits not only our team but myself in a really beneficial way.”
He enters his final college season as a 23-year-old program patriarch of sorts. Teammates gravitate to him now, coach Charlie Strong said, because of his maturity and the leadership role he has assumed.
Whereas he was learning peers’ names this time last year, he’s now learning their nuances.
“He’s giving guys a lot of trust,” Wilcox said earlier this month. “Even today he said to a lot of guys (that) he threw the ball before we even broke out of our route, and that’s something you build up over time. I’m proud to see that out of Blake. I’m excited for him.”
All that’s left is for the resident sous vide chef to really get cooking, starting Aug. 30 against Wisconsin.
“I’m comfortable in my surroundings as far as with my team, because I know them better,” Barnett said. “I know how they play on the field. I know how they react when they’re upset. But not comfort in terms of feeling lackadaisical by any means.
“This is my first camp I’ve gone into where I’m the starter, so I’ve tried to stay persistent in completing every rep, making sure I can do the best that I can to help this offense.”
Contact Joey Knight at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.