After nearly playing Rose Bowl hero, Utah walk-on Bryson Barnes will be QB2 at Florida

Plus: What if there’s a lightning delay, replacing Covey as a returner, defending Florida star QB Anthony Richardson

(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.

There was no fall camp competition at the University of Utah for QB1.

But there was for QB2, and that appears to now be settled.

Bryson Barnes, the third-year sophomore walk-on who nearly played the role of hero for Utah in the Rose Bowl, will serve as Cam Rising’s backup in Saturday night’s season opener at the University of Florida (5 p.m., ESPN). Barnes beat out redshirt freshman Ja’Quinden Jackson for the backup job.

“He just has better command of the offense, fewer mistakes,” head coach Kyle Whittingham said Monday. “JJ, we still believe in JJ. He still has a lot of football ahead of him and is certainly a tremendous athlete, is a true dual-threat, but right now, Bryson Barnes we feel is the best solution if something were to happen to Cam, based on total body of work through spring and fall camp.”

Barnes was 2-for-2 for 23 yards with a touchdown pass in the fourth quarter of the Rose Bowl in relief of an injured Rising.

Jackson, who on Saturday afternoon was named the recipient of this season’s Ty Jordan/Aaron Lowe Memorial Scholarship, saw action in three games last season, but has yet to throw a collegiate pass. He spent his true freshman season at Texas in 2020 but did not see action.

What if there’s a lightning delay?

Utah has had two of its last three season openers — 2019 at BYU and 2021 vs. Weber State — feature prolonged lightning delays.

The Gainesville, Fla., forecast on Saturday is calling for scattered thunderstorms throughout the afternoon and evening, which means there is a fair chance the Utes will have a third opener in four seasons interrupted by weather.

Whittingham on Monday spoke of trying to prepare for anything, and that includes the weather.

“We’ve been through those before,” Whittingham said. “Not a ton of them, but we do have a protocol to handle that. You control what you can’t control. Obviously, you can’t control the weather, but we’ll be ready in case that does happen with the routine and the nutritional aspect of it, and how you handle that in the event it does happen.”

Whittingham noted that if inclement weather were to play a factor on Saturday night, Utah may be inclined to lean on its rushing attack, which returns big production.

On Utah’s first two-deep depth chart, Tavion Thomas, Micah Bernard, Chris Curry, and true freshman Jaylon Glover were all separated by an ‘OR’ designation. And Whittingham indicated that all four running backs will play on Saturday.

Thomas rushed for 1,108 yards and a program single-season record 21 touchdowns a year ago, while Bernard accounted for 774 total yards from scrimmage as Utah’s best pass-catching option out of the backfield. Meanwhile, expectations are high for Glover’s freshman season.

Vele, Bernard draw return duties

Among the few real questions needing to be answered on the initial depth chart. Devaughn Vele will be the primary punt returner, while Micah Bernard will be the primary kickoff returner.

Both Vele and Bernard are replacing Britain Covey, who Whittingham has said on numerous occasions was one of the best, most-dangerous return specialists in the country. Covey, who is currently vying to make the Philadelphia Eagles’ 53-man roster, had 787 return yards and three touchdowns between punts and kickoffs last year.

“Devaughn does a great job catching the ball, and that’s really job No. 1,” Whittingham said. “If you can’t catch the ball, you’re not really in consideration for returning punts. Not that he’s the only guy that can catch it, but he catches it the best. He’s also got explosiveness, he’s fast, and he’s a good open-field runner.

Micah Bernard is a tremendous athlete, great speed, and just seemed to be the best fit for the kickoff returns.”

Defending Anthony Richardson

Whittingham was effusive in his praise for third-year sophomore Florida quarterback Anthony Richardson, who will make his second career start after serving as Emory Jones’ backup in 2021.

Whittingham, at least on film, is convinced that Richardson is someone worth worrying about, even as the Gators break in a new coaching staff and a slew of new personnel at various positions.

“The quarterback is outstanding,” Whittingham said. “I know there isn’t a big body of work, but some people are projecting as a top-10 pick this coming draft, so he’s obviously got a ton of ability. Big kid, 6-4, 240 pounds and really fast, so he’s going to be a handful for us.

“You have to account for the QB run game every single down. He reportedly has 4.3 speed. At that size, that’s incredible. That’s Cam Newton-ish numbers with his physical stature and his ability to run. That’s something Coach Scalley and the d-staff are well-aware of, so that has to be taken into account in everything you do.”