Gilbert High School senior Blake Barnhardt waited patiently for five weeks, spending time on the scout team offense and defense until he was finally eligible to suit up on Friday nights.
A transfer from Williams Field, Barnhardt was forced to sit out the first five games of Gilbert’s season. But against Campo Verde this past Friday, he was finally able to take the field as a Tiger.
“It was a long five weeks,” Barnhardt said. “But it’s fun to just be able to get out there with my guys and start playing.”
Barnhardt, a 6-foot-2, 175-pound wideout and defensive back, fit right into Gilbert’s game plan. His skillset gives senior quarterback Will Plummer a big target on the outside, while his speed and athleticism allows him to play at either corner or both safety positions on defense.
He bounced around on the scout defense during the five weeks he was ineligible, challenging Plummer and the first-team offense in practice. On offense, he provided difficulty for Gilbert’s defense, as him and Plummer connected on multiple occasions.
“I feel like I competed well with all of our DBs during practice,” Barnhardt said. “I honestly think I got some of the best work I could get to prepare myself for the last five weeks of the regular season.”
Plummer and Barnhardt aren’t strangers to one another. Before high school, the two played youth football together on the Gilbert Dawgs. Though it’s been four years since the two have shared the same field while being on the same team, they haven’t skipped a beat.
“We hadn’t seen each other in a couple of years but ever since he transferred in January, we’ve hung out basically every day,” Plummer said. “Our chemistry has gotten even stronger. It’s going to be huge to have him.”
Barnhardt planned to contribute immediately alongside a plethora of talented wideouts on Gilbert’s offense. Despite a loss to Campo Verde, Barnhardt had 6 receptions for 64 yards.
Senior captain Tyler Hironaka has been one of Plummer’s favorite targets this season, as the 5-foot-9, 175-pounder has used his speed to catch 49 passes for 868 yards and eight touchdowns.
Along with Hironaka, junior Wyatt Zellner has 125 receiving yards for a touchdown, and senior Briggs Dupree has accounted for 372 receiving yards and three touchdowns. On the season, 13 different players have caught passes from Plummer, who has already passed for 1,759 yards and 16 touchdowns.
“I’m not the fastest but I know if I just find ways to get open, I can still make plays. I’ve been able to do that so far,” Dupree said. “Blake is a real player, he’s really good. He’ll be a big help in the end zone because he is tall and lengthy, but he also has really good hands.
“He’s going to bring a lot to this team.”
Since Derek Zellner took over the football program at Gilbert, the offense has produced a large magnitude of yards and points on a yearly basis. It started in 2015 with Will’s older brother, Jack playing quarterback, who is now at Purdue University.
As a sophomore, the older Plummer threw for over 1,500 yards. He nearly eclipsed 2,500 yards as a junior and passed for a staggering 2,861 yards as a senior. There’s been no drop-off from Jack to Will, as the younger Plummer has picked up where his brother left off.
In his first season as a starter last season, Plummer passed for 2,339 yards and 25 touchdowns. He’s already on pace this season to eclipse the 3,000-yard mark.
“When I was in high school, my coach, coach (Mike) Clark at Dobson, said every play was designed to score,” Zellner said. “That’s the same thing with us. That’s the beauty of spread because you put all of these athletes on the field and it’s difficult for teams to stop.”
The Tigers made the playoffs for the first time since 2010 last season, a major accomplishment for a program in peril before Zellner arrived. Participation numbers throughout the program have risen each year, and the Tigers now find themselves being competitive in one of the toughest regions in the 5A Conference.
Zellner hopes they can continue that progression one game at a time this season, and he looks forward to adding Barnhardt’s talent to his arsenal of offensive weapons.
“We just want to keep getting better and better each week,” Zellner said. “Now that Blake and a couple other guys are eligible, it should be a good thing. We will see where it takes us.”