Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2013 | 2 a.m.
One of the many lessons Roy Barnhill imparted on his only son is that no matter how hard you’re working, someone is working harder. The only way to compete with those unknown masses is to push yourself up to and past your limits, then do the same thing tomorrow.
“To make it you have to do this every day,” Roy Barnhill said.
Years of hardworking days later, UNLV junior Taylor Barnhill is back in Texas, where he was born and raised. The last time he played football in his home state he was 0-10 as the senior quarterback at Justin Northwest High in Rhome, Texas.
Imagine that for a second. While movies, books and TV may trump up the drama around the Friday Night Lights culture in Texas, it’s not that far off, Taylor Barnhill said.
“Football is life. Every Friday night coming home was hard,” he said. “I had to sit down and talk with my dad about it; make sure I had the right attitude going into every game.”
Those talks hardened Taylor Barnhill’s resolve. There would be better days ahead, but only if he worked harder than he did yesterday.
Four years and five position changes later, Taylor Barnhill returns to Texas as the personification of UNLV’s climb out of college football’s abyss and into Wednesday’s Heart of Dallas Bowl. In front of 30 close family and friends and countless other former teammates and coaches, Taylor Barnhill will enter Cotton Bowl Stadium, which is located about 60 miles from his hometown, and try to do what he couldn’t his senior season: win.
UNLV (7-5) is the underdog against North Texas (8-4) but the point spread hardly seems to matter to a team made up of guys like Taylor Barnhill who never gave up.
“No matter what has happened to him,” Roy Barnhill said, “he has fought through it.”
The only son of Roy and Lori Barnhill, Taylor Barnhill couldn’t even find refuge from his difficult senior season at home. His older sister, Brittany, went on to be an All-American softball pitcher at Ole Miss, and in the words of Roy Barnhill, “she never lost at anything she did.”
All three of the Barnhills’ children, including youngest daughter Brianna, are athletes. Roy Barnhill grew up friends with former Arkansas and Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt, and he worked as a student assistant alongside Nutt at Oklahoma State under Jimmy Johnson and at Arkansas under Lou Holtz.
Although his heart was in coaching, Roy Barnhill moved to Texas after graduation and started a landscaping company. He eventually found an outlet for that coaching passion in his kids; trying to push them to their limits while being mindful of when to dial it back.
Taylor Barnhill was set to be the starting quarterback as a junior in high school when he suffered an arm injury. He returned several weeks later to finish out the year at receiver, a move that would come in handy down the road.
Despite his senior record, Taylor Barnhill — a multisport athlete listed at 6-foot-4 and 240 pounds — got attention because coaches liked his work ethic and athleticism. He got interest from Miami (Ohio) but they signed another quarterback. Then the coach recruiting him there, Cedric Cormier, got a job at UNLV, and a week later Taylor Barnhill was the lone quarterback in coach Bobby Hauck’s first recruiting class.
“He had great leadership skills,” Cormier said.
Taylor Barnhill redshirted that first year. In his debut season he played quarterback, then moved to H-back and then back to quarterback for two starts at the end of the year. He finished the year 11-of-22 passing for 102 yards and one touchdown. He also played special teams on kickoff coverage.
“Taylor will go play any position; he just wants to play,” Cormier said. “He’s living the dream.”
In the spring before his redshirt sophomore season, Hauck moved Barnhill to linebacker. Just as he was getting used to that side of the ball, an injury brought him back over to offense at tight end/H-back.
Throughout all the moves, Taylor Barnhill’s coaches and father say he handled each change as if he was simply asked to switch seats in a lecture hall.
“My past helped me a lot to adjust to the position change,” Taylor Barnhill said. “I wasn’t going to fight it.”
During his first full year at tight end/H-back, the Rebels still only won two games, but Taylor Barnhill was catching on — 14 catches, 106 yards, 2 TDs — and there were signs that things were changing. UNLV lost close instead of always getting blown out. It felt like Taylor Barnhill’s senior season, when his team was in a bulk of its games and couldn’t make winning plays down the stretch.
This year was different, the type of breakthrough Taylor Barnhill and the Rebels have been working toward for years. With another once-converted quarterback leading the offense in Caleb Herring, Taylor Barnhill was the Rebels’ top tight end with 20 catches for 129 yards and two touchdowns, plus his blocking steadily improved.
Herring likened his switch from quarterback to receiver last year to learning how to ride a bike one way your entire life, and then being told you’ve been doing it wrong.
Herring was able to move back and finish out his career at his original position. That’s unlikely to happen for Taylor Barnhill, but at this point he’s probably better off continuing to develop at tight end.
“I think he’s found his niche,” Herring said. “… The main thing that we, as players, look at on this team is how can we help our team best, and at tight end I think Taylor helps our team best.”
Taylor Barnhill catch vs. La. Tech
The Barnhill men attended UNLV’s last bowl game. When Taylor Barnhill was 9, Roy Barnhill traveled to Las Vegas to watch his friend Nutt coach Arkansas against the Rebels in the 2000 Las Vegas Bowl.
It seemed unlikely then that it would take UNLV this long to get back to the postseason, or that the young kid throwing and catching the ball with his dad before the game that day at Sam Boyd Stadium would help the Rebels get there. Yet 13 years later, here they all are.
Taylor Barnhill’s parents have been able to travel to most of his games, but the majority of people he’ll know at the game haven’t seen him win a game in person since he was playing receiver up the road as a junior in high school.
Catching the winning touchdown pass in an historic Texas stadium a short drive from his hometown against a team located an even shorter drive away would be too perfect. Like Taylor Barnhill said, it’s not quite like they make it seem in the movies. But it’s close.
As long as he and the Rebels keep pushing their limits the way they have this season, they’ll have a chance for a Hollywood ending. Getting there starts with remembering Roy Barnhill’s advice from years go: In order to win, they must work harder tomorrow than they did today.