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Alabama transfer Blake Barnett may be the Pac-12's biggest wild card

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Blake Barnett doesn't want to talk about the past. The former five-star quarterback recruit doesn't want to talk about Alabama or why he left or what folks said about him when he did. He'd rather talk about the future at Arizona State.

But he also admits that when you play for Nick Saban, a living legend already chiseled onto the college football coaching Mount Rushmore, folks are curious, whether they be reporters or new teammates or random fans, particularly when said parting fell short of amicable.

"Things ended up the way they did," said Barnett, who will be a redshirt sophomore this fall. "To be honest, I'm not quite sure why. But I'm here now."

Barnett, who earned immediate eligibility when he won his appeal with the NCAA, earned the starting job at Alabama during 2016 preseason camp, but early struggles in the opener against USC convinced Tide coaches to bring in freshman Jalen Hurts. Barnett would play in three of the Crimson Tide's first four games, but his traction in the QB competition eroded and he opted to leave the team before the end of September, inspiring the wrath of Saban.

Saban essentially called Barnett a quitter on his weekly radio show, according to a transcription from AL.com.

"I think there's a certain pride people have in competition," Saban said. "There's certain things that I was taught growing up about not quitting and seeing things through. I think if I would have come home and told my dad that I was going to quit the team, I think he would have kicked me out of the house. I don't think I'd have a place to stay."

Barnett said things started to fracture well before he decided to transfer, starting with Saban telling ESPN's Sam Ponder that Barnett was "nervous" in the early going against USC.

"A lot of backlash that I received from [the USC game] was that I came out nervous," Barnett said. "I think you could ask just about every teammate and they'd agree that I wasn't. But a certain coach went out to the media and said that I was and so I got that negative reputation from it."

Well, the reputation wasn't that negative. Barnett, a 6-foot-5, 200-pound native of California, could have transferred to top-flight programs in any of the Power 5 conferences, but he wanted to go back West, where about half the Pac-12 was pursuing him. He ended up picking the Sun Devils over Washington State.

Arizona State will provide Barnett a do-over in a completely different football environment. He goes from a program where it's "national title or bust" to one that's trying to bounce back from consecutive losing seasons, though he was effusive when providing his early impressions of the Sun Devils' personnel.

"The talent here is exceptional," he said.

That's not entirely an assessment rooted in political expediency. While the Sun Devils have plenty of questions, the returning talent at the skill positions is intriguing, particularly with the addition of fellow transfers Ryan Newsome and John Humphrey, speedster receivers who bolted Texas and Oklahoma, respectively.

Barnett was ranked by ESPN.com as the nation's No. 1 pocket passer coming out of Santiago High in Corona, California. He was the MVP of the 2014 Elite 11 quarterback camp. During his brief Alabama tenure, he completed 11 of 19 passes for 219 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions.

Despite his pedigree, Barnett isn't a sure thing to win the job. Junior Manny Wilkins is a returning starter behind center, and he played well during the Sun Devils' 4-0 start last season. Foot and ankle injuries, beginning during a loss at USC on Oct. 1, set in motion a spiral for Wilkins and the Sun Devils from which neither fully recovered.

With backups Brady White and Bryce Perkins still injured, and coaches hoping to redshirt sophomore Dillon Sterling-Cole and incoming freshman Ryan Kelley, the competition probably will be between Wilkins and Barnett.

Wilkins says he harbors no bitterness over having to fight to win back his starting spot.

"It's all part of the game," he said. "College football is a business. I'm not scared. I'm not flustered. That's not who I am. It really doesn't matter to me. I'm very hungry."

Said coach Todd Graham: "I like competition. Competition makes you better."

Adding to the intrigue is the arrival of new offensive coordinator Billy Napier, who just so happened to coach receivers at, yes, Alabama last season. Napier went out of his way Wednesday to be as vague and general as possible when talking about the pending QB competition, resisting each and every inquiry in search of specifics about Barnett.

"We've got a clean slate with every football player on our team right now, including the quarterback position," said Napier, a former coordinator at Clemson who replaced Chip Lindsey, hired away from Tempe to run Auburn's offense.

"We're going to create competition," he added. "We're going to evaluate them as if we don't know anything about them."

That's probably fine with Barnett. He doesn't appear nervous about making a fresh start.