If you want to know what's propelling quarterback Blake Barnett of Corona Santiago on a path toward national attention for his sports skills, it's not just his ability to pass and run and lead.
Yes, those are important qualities for football's most glamorous position, but it's Barnett's work ethic and understanding of what it takes to succeed that are pushing him on a trajectory that one day figures to have him starting for one of America's most visible football teams, the Alabama Crimson Tide.
The 6-foot-4, 205-pound senior has the combination of charisma, intelligence and brawn every coach seeks. He also has a unique perspective, having come up from seemingly the bottom to remind him not to become too enamored with the inevitable hype that follows a teenager who passed for 350 yards in one game and ran for 242 yards in another in 2013.
At this time last season, Barnett was a relatively unknown junior preparing to make his first varsity start. Few knew that he had transformed himself into an athletic, versatile quarterback over the summer through hard work on his mechanics and footwork.
Then, in the season opener against Newhall Hart, he passed for 289 yards and five touchdowns and ran for 92 yards and one touchdown in a 56-49 loss. Word spread fast. Soon colleges were watching highlight videos and offering scholarships. By November, he had committed to Notre Dame after passing for 2,332 yards and 22 touchdowns and running for 695 yards and 13 touchdowns.
"It shows it's possible to change your athletic appearance, and it's nice knowing where the bottom was and it's nice to go up a little bit and it's nice to know what it's like with all the recruiting and media attention," he said.
The attention became even more intense in early June, when he changed his mind about attending Notre Dame. Fighting Irish fans let him have it on social media. Two weeks later, he announced he was committed to Alabama. Suddenly, a different group of fans were enamored with him. It showed the kind of business he is in, how one minute he can be beloved and the next minute villified.
"They're supportive when they want you and against you when they don't," he said. "If you let it get to your head, that's when things get bad. It's kind of a crazy business seeing these colleges change their minds and kids, too."
Barnett refuses to change his personality when the pressure rises.
"Blake is a gifted athlete but one of those rare high school kids that is wired differently," Coach Jeff Steinberg said. "I have seen kids in the past 'check out' once they commit but Blake is so competitive and a loyal teammate."
He's still Blake, the A student; still Blake, the friendly 18-year-old who welcomes strangers with a smile; still Blake, the pride of Corona who loves his community and his friends.
"I've seen a lot of players in similar situations and they go from nothing to the No. 1 player, then it gets to their head," he said. "It changes them as a person and as a player. I like to pride myself on staying humble, still coming to school and acting the same around my friends as if nothing were happening. That's helped me become a better person as well."
Except lots of things are happening. He's scheduled to graduate in December and enroll at Alabama, where fans are already following his every move. Expectations are rising, and lots of people will be looking at him differently in his senior season, though Steinberg isn't concerned.
"He's faster, stronger, bigger," he said. "His field savvy is going to be better. The kid throws a ball through a car wash and it doesn't get wet."
Barnett was once a pitcher and a quarterback, and he said going from one sport to the other messed up his mechanics. Then he dropped baseball when he reached high school and met Dennis Gile, a private quarterback coach in Arizona who helped refine his throwing motion. His dual-threat potential fits right in with the new version of quarterbacks taking over the high school and college game.
Then there's his easygoing personality. Steinberg trusts him so much that when Barnett and a friend started their own mini-barber shop, he let Barnett cut his hair.
"So now I'm his personal barber," Barnett said.
Whomever Barnett meets, he leaves a lasting impression.
When former Diamond Bar Coach Ryan Maine was hired as the new receivers coach last spring, Maine said Barnett was "the first person to say hi to me and he barely knows me."
Barnett has put himself on a sports journey that could take him to places teenagers only dream about, and he seems prepared for the bumps and challenges along the way.
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