Chuck Landon: Will USF QB play or not?

December 19, 2018 GMT

TAMPA, Fla. - Charlie Strong is being coy.

Ask South Florida’s head coach if injured star quarterback Blake Barnett will start against Marshall University in the Gasparilla Bowl at 8 p.m. Thursday in Raymond James Stadium and a game of dodge ball breaks out.

“It’s still wait-and-see,” said Strong.

Yeah, right.

Barnett is a 6-foot-5, 217-pound junior graduate transfer who has completed 203 of 327 passes for 2,498 yards (249.8 yards per game) with 11 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. He rushed for 86 yards and two touchdowns in a 49-38 win over Georgia Tech and passed for 411 yards and two TDs in a 25-19 win at Illinois.

Obviously, Barnett can play.

But will he play?

Ah, there’s the question.

Barnett missed South Florida’s 35-23 loss at Cincinnati because of shoulder soreness. Then, he injured his ankle in the second quarter of a 27-17 loss at Temple. That forced Barnett to miss USF’s 38-10 loss to UCF in the Bulls’ final regular-season game.

So, he missed most of South Florida’s last three games. Yet, Barnett also has had 32 days to heal since injuring his ankle Nov. 17.

Since South Florida and Marshall’s bowl practices are closed to the media, we don’t know if Barnett is practicing or not.

My hunch is he will play.

Which, of course, is not what Marshall head coach Doc Holliday wants to hear. He realizes how talented Barnett is.

“The quarterback was at one time the starting quarterback at Alabama,” referenced Holliday. “He was replaced by Jalen Hurts.”

Eyebrow raising, but true.

Barnett was a five-star quarterback from California who redshirted his first year at Alabama, but was the season-opening starter in 2016. However, Barnett lost his starting job to Hurts (a freshman) before halftime of the opening game against Southern Cal.

Next, Barnett transferred to a junior college and, then, to Arizona State where he spent the 2017 season as the backup quarterback. That led to his move to South Florida where he seems to have found a home with his wife, Maddie (a professional surfer), and their infant son, Brooks.

So, besides the statistics and the fact Barnett has had the ninth-best passing season in Bulls’ history despite missing most of three games, just how good is he?

“He throws the ball like FIU’s quarterback (James Morgan),” said Marshall star safety Malik Gant, “but he runs like Florida Atlantic’s quarterback (Chris Robison). I would say Barnett is probably one of the most elusive quarterbacks we’ll play all year.”

That’s impressive considering his 6-5, 217-pound frame.

“He’s elusive even at that size,” said Gant. “You’ve got to think with that frame-size quarterback, being able to throw the ball and being able to run outside and make it work ... that’s a big thing.”

Marshall hasn’t played against a guy like Barnett. Why, USF even runs the option with him.

“Yeah, most definitely,” said Gant. “Looking at their film, they do a lot of read-option with him and get the ball in his hands and let him make decisions.

“I remember hearing his name when I was in high school. He’s a household name. Everybody knows about Blake Barnett. His skill is a skill that stands out from a lot of quarterbacks in college.”

Sounds as though Gant expects him to play.

“Yeah,” he said, “then, if he doesn’t, we just make the adjustment.”

It will be interesting.

Chuck Landon is a sports columnist for The Herald-Dispatch. Contact him at clandon@herald-dispatch.com.