TAMPA — Unlike his only previous start as a collegian, two Septembers ago for a Tuscaloosa-based team, Blake Barnett didn't have to settle Saturday for a cameo appearance. This was a captivating one.
On a warm night devoid of even one lightning strike, the winner of USF's preseason quarterback derby finally had a finest hour to show for his journeyman career.
Crisp and elusive, Barnett passed for 305 yards in the Bulls' 34-14 rout of Division I-AA Elon before an announced Raymond James Stadium crowd of 31,217.
"It meant a lot," said Barnett, a married dad of an infant son. "It's been a long time coming, a really long time.
A graduate transfer who spent 2017 as an Arizona State backup after leaving Alabama the previous year, Barnett was the first player not named Quinton Flowers to start a game for the Bulls (1-0) since Nov. 28, 2014.
And while nary a USF fan will forget Flowers any time soon, Barnett's performance Saturday (24-for-34, three touchdowns, no interceptions) after only one preseason camp might lessen the sting of his departure.
His passing yardage total was second-highest by a Bulls quarterback in his starting debut, six shy of Mike White's 311 yards in a 2013 loss at Houston.
"He's what, 20 practices into fall camp?" coach Charlie Strong asked rhetorically.
"You know he has the ability because he would've never been who he was, being the elite quarterback and everything. But to watch him come out tonight and play well, it's good for his confidence. And it's good for the whole team, because now the whole team sees their quarterback."
On the fifth offensive play of the season, Barnett found redshirt freshman Randall St. Felix (seven catches, 143 yards) behind his coverage down the right sideline for a 40-yard touchdown.
At that point, his QB rating was 355.6. He didn't have a truly shaky pass until overthrowing Elijah Mack on a short swing pass on his 10th attempt of the game.
On his 11th, he found 240-pound slot receiver Tyre McCants, who churned upfield and broke two tackles near the goal line for a 16-yard score. Later in the first half, he found tight end Mitch Wilcox uncovered in the middle of the end zone for a 14-yard scoring strike.
Barnett finished the first half 14-for-20 for 223 yards, three touchdowns and 27 rushing yards on five carries. He put his 217 pounds to solid use on the opening drive of the second half, when he darted up the middle on fourth-and-goal, took a shot near the 1 and lunged across the goal line for a 2-yard TD.
Abetting him was a defense that consistently put him in prime field position.
Though periodically susceptible to the Phoenix run game, the Bulls held Elon to 165 total yards through the first three quarters. Both of its touchdowns came in the final 16 minutes.
"I just think we let up," said safety Bentlee Sanders, a Tampa Catholic alumnus who had 10 tackles. "We didn't finish. They shouldn't have scored. It should have been a goose egg the whole time, but we just slowed down."
Before decelerating, two former Hillsborough County prep stars — defensive end Vincent Jackson (Jesuit) and cornerback Mike Hampton (Hillsborough) — set up Bulls first-half touchdowns with interceptions in Elon territory.
But Saturday was about the fresh look of the Bulls offense, which transcended the quarterback's name.
Second-year coordinator Sterlin Gilbert, criticized for a scheme heavy on dive plays and light on quick strikes last fall, mixed things up noticeably.
The calculated shots downfield (St. Felix had catches of 40 and 52 yards) were complemented by toss sweeps, screen passes and quick slants, all with a brisk tempo.
"We have to take advantage of our speed," Strong said. "We have enough guys where we can run, so let's get the ball on the perimeter and make people run us down. And if they can catch us, we're not as fast as we thought we were."
But a little perspective: Relatively speaking, this contest against an overmatched foe represented a teaser, or tune-up.
Now comes the test: next Saturday against Georgia Tech. "It's gonna be a totally different team," Strong said.
The Bulls will counter with a totally different quarterback, whose potential finally is just now being tapped.
"I mean, he's not (Flowers), now," Strong said. "But he can make the throws for us and get us in the right plays."
Contact Joey Knight at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.