For all of his football ability, Blake Barker has never had the element of surprise on his side.
"Ever since I first started playing football, I felt like I was bigger than everyone," he says.
Now 6-foot-6, 235 pounds, it would be hard for the Buckingham Browne & Nichols (Cambridge, Mass.) senior tight end/defensive end to sneak up on anyone. His smashmouth style on both sides of the ball also makes him hard to miss.
"I'm relentless and I never give up on a play," says Barker. "That's my biggest strength and the biggest reason I've had success."
Opponents certainly know what to expect when they line up against the Stanford recruit. In his first two varsity seasons at BB&N, Barker established himself as the best player in Massachusetts and a difference-maker on offense and defense.
His 450 receiving yards and six touchdown catches last year didn't come out of nowhere. Neither did his 12.5 sacks. For anyone who was paying attention, the warning signs were clear.
"You could definitely see he was going to be a great player the first time you looked at him," says BB&N senior wide receiver Jimmy McCaffrey, a Boston College recruit, recalling Barker's early years at the Cambridge school. "For someone his size, no one can move as well as him. He's a great athlete."
Barker grew up thinking his future was on the ice. An avid hockey player, he was an agile skater with good speed, and even as a kid his physical strength was a notch above everyone else's. The Wellesley, Mass., native was hoping to snag a college scholarship as a defenseman.
But when he reached BB&N and went out for the freshman football team, that all began to change. Despite having never played Pop Warner and possessing little football experience, Barker started at quarterback and defensive end.
That's when BB&N coach John Papas realized what he was dealing with.
"He came in as a freshman and right from that minute you could tell," says Papas. "He was predominantly a hockey player at the time, but he had tremendous athleticism. He played quarterback like Tim Tebow, very aggressive, and he was more athletic than anyone else."
After proving himself on the frosh team, Barker was penciled in as a starting defensive end for the varsity squad as a sophomore. On offense, the Knights had an established quarterback, so Papas shifted Barker to tight end.
Barker stepped in and immediately became one of the team's defensive leaders. Playing opposite veteran defensive end Nick Halloran (now at Boston College), Barker was targeted by opposing teams. They quickly learned he was a force to be avoided as well, as he compiled 33 tackles and four sacks, great numbers for a sophomore in the ISL (one of the toughest leagues in New England).
Considering how quickly Barker took to football, it was no shock how smoothly he transitioned from quarterback to tight end. With minimal experience, he caught 12 passes for 189 yards and seven touchdowns. Papas also loved his physical blocking.
The performance convinced Barker that his future was on the football field. His hockey dreams were put on the back burner while he concentrated on the gridiron.
"After sophomore year, I realized what kind of football player I could be," says Barker. "That's when football started being the main priority. Coach Papas really convinced me that I had a lot of potential and that football could be my future."
Armed with a commitment to the sport, Barker came back in 2008 determined to fulfill everyone's expectations. After an intense offseason of training, he filled out his frame with more muscle and added explosiveness.
The results were entirely unsurprising.
"He was dominant last year," says Papas. "In the preseason, I could see that he'd really turned the corner and was going to be a big national recruit-type player. Offense and defense, he dominated the line of scrimmage."
His double-digit sacks were almost matter-of-fact, but Barker made an especially big leap on offense. He used his 4.7 speed to catch 22 passes for 450 yards and six touchdowns, and his blocking became the most prominent aspect of his game.
"He was just crushing people," says Papas. "Being a hockey player, he always liked contact. But football is a collision sport, and Blake really loves to smash people. Whenever we needed a yard last year, we just ran off tackle because his drive-blocking was so good."
Despite how predictable his rise may have been, Barker is not taking his success for granted. After leading BB&N to ISL and New England Bowl championships last year, he spent the offseason working out at Athletic Evolution, a training complex in Woburn, Mass.
p>The goal was more speed, strength and athleticism to help on both sides of the ball -- because if there's one unpredictable aspect of Barker's game, it's the position he'll be playing at the next level.
He committed to Stanford over the summer, but the Cardinal coaches hadn't decided where he'll be lining up. Barker's versatility was one of his greatest attributes in the eyes of recruiters; some schools liked him as a tight end, while Florida wanted him as a defensive end. Virginia even recruited him to play linebacker.
"It's still up in the air right now," says Barker. "I love both. I love playing defense, I love rushing the quarterback and getting sacks. But I also love playing tight end, scoring touchdowns and helping in all different aspects of the offense. The most important thing is getting on the field, and that's up to the coaches to decide where I fit the best."
Before Barker takes off for the West Coast, local football fans should try to get to a BB&N game this season to see him in action. He shouldn't be hard to spot. You can see the state's best player coming a mile away.
Mike Grimala covers high school sports for ESPN RISE Magazine.