By the time the University of Utah football team arrived in Southern California for the Rose Bowl on Dec. 26, Bryson Barnes knew he was going to be the backup quarterback behind Cam Rising against Ohio State.
Barnes ascending to that spot for the biggest game in program history is no small feat, but during the days leading up to the game, the second-year walk-on freshman without even a collegiate pass attempt on his resume had a premonition.
“I just had a weird feeling I was going in,” the former Milford High School standout said Tuesday afternoon after Utah finished up its first of 15 spring practices. “I just had a feeling. Not that that changed my preparation leading up to the game because you have to prepare that way regardless. That could have happened the first game Cam started (last season) against Washington State. It could have happened at any given moment, so you have to be prepared.”
When Rising went down with about 10:00 left in the fourth quarter of a tie game with an apparent head injury, Barnes was thrust into duty, and he was indeed prepared.
His second drive ended with a perfectly thrown 15-yard touchdown pass to the back of the end zone to tight end Dalton Kincaid to tie the game at 45. Rising, for what it’s worth, said on Tuesday that he suffered a concussion and was knocked out on the play.
Ohio State kicked a 19-yard field goal with nine seconds left for the winning points. Barnes never got the chance to answer, but the bigger picture that night was that he was capable of running offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig’s offense, a factor which now gives way to an intriguing spring storyline.
Rising is the unquestioned starter, the incumbent, but the battle to be his backup is on between Barnes and third-year sophomore Ja’Quinden Jackson.
“We want to develop them, but ideally, we would come out with a one, a two, and a three,” said Whittingham, who confirmed Barnes remains a walk-on as his third season with the program approaches. “We’ll see if that happens, but if it doesn’t we have plenty of time to identify the No. 2 and 3 guy. The sooner you do that, though, the sooner you can start to sink reps into guys you know are going to be on the depth chart.”
Barnes may have only two career passing attempts to his name, but that’s two more than Jackson, who saw limited situational action last fall — most notably four carries for 21 yards, a touchdown and one of seven Utes fumbles in a Sept. 25 win over Washington State.
In a recent phone interview with The Salt Lake Tribune, Whittingham praised Jackson for his improvement, specifically his accuracy in throwing the ball. Tuesday was more of the same.
“Ja’Quinden Jackson has really improved his game from the fall,” Whittingham said. “He’s really worked hard and he looked really good today. If you talk about standouts, he’d definitely be one of them today. He’s elevated his play.”
Added Jackson: “We’re all just trying to get better, that’s really it. We’re trying to get better, we’re trying to motivate each other and push each other to be the best we can be.”
The fact there is a quarterback competition going on at Utah isn’t anything new. Cam Rising vs. Jake Bentley marked the runup to a shortened 2020 season due to COVID-19. Rising vs. Charlie Brewer dominated attention at fall camp in 2021. The fact that this particular quarterback competition has nothing to do with the starter is a major benefit.
For the first time in Rising’s career, the focus of the offense is on him. No spring/summer competition, no splitting reps, no incessant questioning and guessing what the end result might be. Rising is the guy as a fifth-year junior in his third season working with Ludwig. With that much experience, not to mention coming off the Rose Bowl, expectations are going to be high, but to the benefit of everyone around him, Rising is going into spring ball with the right demeanor.
“I still think I have to compete for it and put my best foot forward, be as good as I can for the team,” said Rising’s last season’s All-Pac-12 first-team quarterback. “It’s the same mentality as before.”