Why Utes won’t flinch if they have to turn to their backup QB Bryson Barnes

The Utes’ backup, who won a crucial road game at Washington State this season, knows his hard work “doesn’t just go to waste.”

(Young Kwak | AP) Utah quarterback Bryson Barnes is hit by Washington State defensive back Armani Marsh as he throws a pass during the second half of a PAC-12 football game Thursday, Oct. 27, 2022, in Pullman, Wash. Forty minutes before the game, Barnes found out he would be playing the must-win contest in place of Cam Rising. Utah won 21-17.

They say dress for the job you want, and 6-year-old Bryson Barnes did. Everywhere he went, he wore his football cleats. To the park. To school. To the zoo. He didn’t care that other kids made fun of him. Sure, the boy who grew up helping out on his parents’ pig farm near Milford was shorter than a fence post and weighed less than a bag of feed, but he was going to be a college player someday. And when opportunity knocked, he wouldn’t be caught smooth-soled.

Little has changed in terms of Barnes’ mindset in the 15 years since. Now the backup quarterback for the University of Utah football team, he’s still ready to answer the call when needed. And he’s still taking his preparation a step or two beyond what’s expected.

“It’s not just, ‘OK, we’re going to run this play.’ It’s ‘Why are we going to run this play in this situation? Why are we calling this?’” said Wes Marshall, Barnes’ offensive coordinator at Milford High. “He studied the game more than any kid I’ve ever coached.”

The Utes charge into Pasadena for their Rose Bowl Redemption Tour game Monday against Penn State, and of course no one will want anything to happen to starting quarterback Cam Rising. But, if the walk-on backup QB does have to step in behind center, don’t expect an air of panic or doom to set in over the Utah sideline. Barnes may not have been born for the moment, but he’s been preparing for it most of his life.

Plus, now he’s had a little practice.

Mind for the game

When Chris Barnes signed up to coach third-grade boys basketball, he thought he would be the one calling the plays. He didn’t realize his middle son planned to commandeer that role.

“He drew up the plays,” Chris Barnes recalled. “He knew how he was going to get everybody the ball and how they were going to score. He sucked everybody over here and passed it over there. And he was just little.

“It worked. We won every game.”

Really, the elder Barnes shouldn’t have been surprised. After Little League football games, Bryson would spend hours breaking down his performance and that of his teammates. At the next practice, he’d hand his coach a report.

(Stacy Barnes) Bryson Barnes, left, around age 6 shows off his cleats on a trip to Hogle Zoo with his siblings and parents, Chris and Stacy. Barnes, the backup quarterback for the University of Utah football team, has made a lifelong habit of being prepared to play.

Then in eighth grade, while working as a varsity football team manager, Bryson sat in on a team meeting where the defensive coordinator was drawing up his schemes for the next game. Problem was, Bryson kept shooting holes in them until the frustrated coordinator kicked him out.

So, when Chris Barnes saw Cam Rising laid out on the field with roughly 10 minutes remaining in the 2022 Rose Bowl with the score tied 38-all, he wasn’t particularly nervous. Yes, his son, who had seen few impactful minutes of play since guiding one of Utah’s smallest schools with an 11-man football program to the 1A championship his junior year, had the team’s fortunes in his hands. Chris Barnes, though, couldn’t think of a better person for the job.

“I know him. I knew that he was prepared to go in,” he said. “And he had been telling me, ‘I’m ready. If they ever need me to go in, I’m ready. And it’s just football.’”

As anticipated, No. 16 stepped in seamlessly. Even after Ohio State scored a go-ahead touchdown, he didn’t get flustered. Instead, the 6-foot-1 freshman rushed for 10 yards and completed both his pass attempts for 23 yards plus a game-tying touchdown to tight end Dalton Kindcaid to keep the Utes alive. Only by kicking a field goal with 9 seconds left did the Buckeyes secure their 48-45 victory.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes quarterback Bryson Barnes (16) runs for a first down, as the Utah Utes face the Ohio State Buckeyes at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., on Saturday, Jan. 1, 2022.

Coach Kyle Whittingham said he was impressed with the effort. Barnes’ teammates were as well. The performance really resonated with one teammate in particular, though — the one who on any other team might have most wanted to keep the backup at an arm’s distance.

A quarterback’s bonds

Barnes had questions about Utah’s offense, and he knew who had the answers: Cam Rising.

It was 2021, and Rising, who had arrived at Utah in 2019, was the only veteran in a crowded field of quarterback prospects. He also happened to have been designated Barnes’ “big brother” within the program. So Barnes started peppering Rising with queries about blocking schemes and receiver routes and any other details his analytical brain couldn’t quite puzzle out.

Before long, those Q and A sessions turned into late-night talks where football wasn’t always the focus. They bonded over their blue-collar work ethic and their toughness — Barnes worked as a plumbing laborer throughout high school and can claim the Wright brothers, some of the best bronc riders in rodeo, as cousins while Rising showed during a particularly nasty hit in the Pac-12 Championship game that he, too, can take a licking and keep on ticking.

Sometimes the talks went deep — like to the depths of the ocean.

(Utah Athletics) Utes quarterback Cam Rising, middle, earned the starting job coming out of Utah's spring practices. Bryson Barnes, right, won the QB2 role and Ja'Quinden Jackson has become a featured running back.

“We did have a long conversation about how deep the ocean is,” Barnes said.

“We’d talk like that,” he added, “and about different things like the Vikings back in the day [and] different religions and how religions influence people’s decisions and how they do things and then to like schemes and stuff like that. There’s a time and place for both.”

The chats no doubt took Barnes back a little to the midnight strategy sessions he used to have with Wes Marshall, his high school offensive coordinator. At the time, Marshall, who is now a physical education teacher in Milford, was working the graveyard shift at the Beaver County Correctional Facility. During a lull in Marshall’s duties, he’d text Bryson and they’d both pull up scouting film of an opponent on their separate computers and hash out a game plan.

When Chris and Stacy Barnes found out young Bryson had been sneaking his cellphone into his room at night, they disapproved. Their attitudes changed a bit, though, when the wins started coming.

“We talked about it and he just said, ‘That’s when Wes works. That’s our only chance to talk and I’ve got to talk to him or I can’t sleep,’ ” Chris Barnes recalled, noting that was enough to convince them to bend their bedtime phone ban on a trial basis.

Then, he added, “We won a state championship and we said, ‘We’re changing the rules.’”

The Rose Bowl might have been like that for both Whittingham and Rising. Barnes got a chance to show them what he could do with what he was given, and it was enough for them to give him more.

Walk-on at Wazzu

On Oct. 27, Barnes got his first career collegiate start.

The game against Washington State wasn’t a gimme, and it wasn’t inconsequential. The Utes had already lost one Pac-12 contest, against UCLA, and they had to beat the Cougars to have any hope of reaching the Pac-12 Championship game and returning to the Rose Bowl. Plus Rising, whose knee had been pretty well battered a week earlier in a valiant victory over USC, wasn’t the only key player who would be held out. Running back Tavion Thomas also missed the game and Micah Bernard was limited. On top of that, they were playing in Pullman, which is a notoriously hard place for visiting teams to win.

Barnes didn’t officially find out he’d be under center on the first possession until 40 minutes before the game. Yet he said he and Rising talked about the possibility the day before.

“He goes, ‘You promise me if you go in, you’re going to win this sucker, right?’ And I was like, ‘Absolutely.’” Barnes recalled. “I told him I’m not here for the status. I’m not here to say, ‘Oh, I started a game for the University of Utah.’ I told him I’m going to do everything I can to win this sucker.”

(Larry Whittaker) Bryson Barnes looks to pass during a Milford High football game. Barnes, who is the backup quarterback for the University of Utah football team after arriving in 2020 as a preferred walk-on, has made a lifelong habit of being prepared to play.

It wasn’t perfect on Barnes’ part, but the Utes did win, 21-17. Now, after another wild win over USC in the Pac-12 Championship, Utah will get its second straight shot to win “The Granddaddy of them All.”

Rising, who could enter the NFL draft this spring, has made no mention of skipping the Rose Bowl, which will be the last to feature the Pac-12 winner and a viable Big Ten opponent. So Barnes will be once again on the sideline, wearing his cleats, ready to go in at any moment.

He’s even more prepared to take over if needed than he was at this time last year, he said, because now he has yet another year’s worth of experiences to draw from. This is the kind of opportunity he wanted when he turned down a few scholarship offers to become a preferred walk-on at a Power Five program. And so far he hasn’t encountered any evidence that his football cleats and plenty of preparation can take him just about anywhere.

Maybe to a Rose Bowl championship and maybe, next year, to a scholarship and a starting role.

“Hard work is going to pay off in some form or another,” he said. “I mean, it definitely doesn’t just go to waste.”