ST. GEORGE — It was the summer of 2010 and Dixie High head football coach Blaine Monkres was performing one of his annual tasks, leafing through his players' bios and consulting with coaches from the lower tiers of his program.
Coming off a state semifinal run with ultra-athletic Mike Sharp as his quarterback, Monkres knew he had to find a replacement for the Flyers' recently graduated multi-sport star.
"With my offense, I like to identify the most athletic kid in the program at a young age and have him be our quarterback, no matter what position he was currently playing," Monkres said.
In his evaluations and discussions with the other coaches, one name kept popping up. He was a speedy but small running back and slot receiver with a penchant for the big play in the Dixie freshman program. His name was Blake Barney.
Barney, then a sophomore-to-be, was a little troubled and worried when the coaches called him into the football office, wondering if he had done something wrong. But when they told him their intention of turning him into the next Dixie High spread offense quarterback, he said he had a hard time suppressing his excitement.
"In little league, you don't really pass much, so I just liked getting it on the hand-off. It was pretty fun," Barney said. "But I've always wanted, deep down, to play quarterback. And then I got my chance."
Though only about 5-foot-7 at the time, Barney felt empowered with the backing of the Flyers' offensive guru and head coach, Monkres.
"Coach Monkres is amazing," Barney said. "The big thing was he always had confidence in me. Then we just had to get on the same page."
With a summer of camps and a lot of drills, Barney took over Dixie's offensive reins in August of 2010. And talk about a baptism of fire, the sophomore threw 45 passes in his first outing. He completed 21 of them and also rushed for 43 yards, but the end result was a 45-38 loss to Springville.
"I learned a lot my sophomore year, especially the first couple of games," he said. "The big thing I needed to learn back then was to take better care of the ball."
Barney and the Flyers also lost their second game that year against Bear River, and the young signal-caller had turned the ball over six times (four fumbles, two interceptions) in his first two starts.
Dixie overpowered Uintah 49-20 in the third game of 2010, but Barney had four more turnovers.
As the turnovers and losses mounted that season (Dixie would end the year 2-7) many began to question Monkres' decision to put the program's fate in the hands of a kid they considered just an
undersized running back.
But despite the turnovers, Barney had shown flashes of brilliance and had passed for 1,864 yards and rushed for 344 more.
And something else very important also happened. With the help of a hearty diet and weight room schedule, he gained nearly 35 pounds and grew about four inches in about eight months.
As a junior, he walked onto the turf at Walt Brooks Stadium at 5-11 and about 185 pounds.
"I ate a lot of ham sandwiches and spent a lot of time in the weight room," Barney said. "I also studied the offense. A lot. Like, all the time."
The results were noticeable, not only to the naked eye (many opposing coaches couldn't believe it was the same kid), but also on the scoreboard and in the stat book.
And though he threw the same number of interceptions as in 2010, Barney more than doubled his touchdown passes in 2011 to 23 and his number of fumbles was way down. And most importantly, the Flyers began winning games.
As has become tradition, Dixie opened the season with Springville. Another shootout ensued, but this time the Flyers' QB took care of the ball. Barney threw for 344 yards and four touchdowns, with no interceptions.
"Being bigger helped," he said. "But getting a better understanding of the offense was the biggest thing."
The Flyers went 3-0 in the preseason and got a 35-33 win over rival Pine View to open region play. Barney had 252 yards passing in that game and started to develop some chemistry with two of his receivers, Lukas Hildebrandt and Drew Batchelor.
Undefeated and highly-ranked, Dixie went into a Top-5 matchup with another undefeated team, traditional powerhouse Hurricane. The results were not prettty.
"That game had a lot of hype, with the Salt Lake media and television and everything," Monkres said. "We didn't handle it very well. We got our butts kicked."
Hurricane won that game 51-21 and Barney turned the ball over three times. And though Dixie would make the state playoffs in 2011, the Hurricane game proved the Flyers were nothing more than an afterthought when it came to state 3A powerhouses.
Dixie would eventually go 7-3 in 2011, including a jarring 41-0 loss in the first round of the playoffs at Juan Diego.
"We were embarrassed last year by Juan Diego," Barney said. "We wanted to prove that we belonged with the best and it didn't happen then. That's why this year is so important."
After the Juan Diego loss, Barney went to work again in the off-season. The focus this time: Become more of a threat in the running game and improve his speed.
"I ran track last spring," he said. "I wasn't that good, but it did teach me a lot about quickness and speed."
The difference was dramatic. In 2010 and '11, the QB rushed for a combined 600 yards and 10 touchdowns. In 2012, Barney has racked up 1,148 rushing yards and 16 TDs. And the turnovers, such a problem early in his career, have all but vanished. Barney rarely fumbles and threw just five interceptions in 256 pass attempts this season.
And he has climbed the ranks of great QBs in Utah state history. Barney currently stands seventh in total offense in Utah all-time.
He also proved his coach right in making that decision two and half years ago.
"He's our guy and I trust him completely," Monkres said. "We are definitely on the same page."
Monkres trusts Barney so much that on the biggest play of the semifinals, a fourth down with under a minute left and the Flyers holding a one-point lead over Juan Diego, he made up a play on the spot that called for Barney to sweep right and read the blocks for a hole. The senior responded with an 11-yard run on the 4th-and-6 play, clinching the victory.2 comments on this story
And of course, despite the nearly 7,000 passing yards and 57 TD passes, the biggest accomplishment for Barney is this: He has his team on the cusp of a state championship.
"We had a goal and it hasn't been easy getting here," Barney said. "Beating Juan Diego was big for us, especially after what they did to us last year. But we still have one more thing to accomplish."
Barney and his teammates will get their chance Friday morning against Spanish Fork.
Andy Griffin is the sports editor of STGnews.com, covering Region 9 sports.