Utah football true freshmen reveling in the opportunity to play in the Rose Bowl

This time last year, these freshmen were in still in high school.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes linebacker Lander Barton (20) sacks Southern Utah Thunderbirds quarterback Justin Miller (12), in football action between the Utah Utes and the Southern Utah Thunderbirds, at Rice-Eccles Stadium, on Saturday, Sept. 10, 2022.

Lander Barton watched the Rose Bowl on TV last year. It was Jan. 1, 2022, and Barton was still a senior at Brighton High School preparing to graduate early so he could join the Utah Utes football team for spring practices.

As Barton watched his future team, he imagined himself on that field in Pasadena, Calif. Imagined himself wearing the Utes red and white adorned with the iconic rose. Imagined himself blocking and tackling in one of the most prestigious bowl games that exists.

Now Barton is a true freshman linebacker for Utah, preparing to play in the team’s second consecutive Rose Bowl, against Penn State — the last “real” Granddaddy of Them All before College Football Playoff expands.

“It’s pretty awesome,” Barton said. “I saw myself here at this point last year. But, I mean, to actually be here, it’s pretty cool.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes quarterback Nate Johnson (13) celebrates a touchdown as the University of Utah hosts Arizona, NCAA football in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 5, 2022.

The Utes have plenty of true freshmen who were high school students at this time last year and will play roles to hopefully bring the team the win that eluded it last year against Ohio State. Part of the reason for that is the way coach Kyle Whittingham runs his program.

“We’re an equal opportunity employer here,” Whittingham said. “We don’t care if you’ve been here five years or five months or five days — if you’re the best player, you’re going to play.”

Case in point: Barton played all 13 games this season, running back Jaylon Glover played in eight, and quarterback Nate Johnson played in four.

Veteran Utes can also see the value of true freshmen and underclassmen having the opportunity to play in a Rose Bowl so early in their careers.

“I think it’s awesome,” junior tight end Thomas Yassmin said. “I think, just even for the future of their careers and the future of the Utah football program, it’s great to have such young guys in such a high level and arguably some of the highest levels of college football. So for them to see it now at 18, 19 years old, that’s just going to give them the confidence going forward, and I think that’s great.”

This time last year, Johnson’s Clovis High team had just lost to Liberty in the first round of California’s Central Section Division I tournament. He wanted to attend the Rose Bowl but was instead in Florida preparing to compete in the Under Armour All-America game. He watched the game from his hotel room with his parents and screamed at the TV.

When Johnson thought about where he was a year ago to where he is now, he said simply, “Time flies.”

“Now as a true freshman playing in the Rose Bowl, it really means a lot,” Johnson said. “Whatever I did to help the team — whether it’s play scout team, came in as a QB on certain packages — it all has helped. So being able to have that dream of playing in the Rose Bowl, just getting that experience, it’s gonna be awesome.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes running back Jaylon Glover (1) runs the ball as the University of Utah hosts Arizona, NCAA football in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 5, 2022.

Glover was in a similar place as Johnson this time last year. He watched his future Utah teammates play the Rose Bowl on TV in Florida, only he was at home with his family hosting a watch party.

Glover had just graduated early from Lake Gibson High and was in full preparation mode for his arrival in Utah that January. He described the emotion of being a true freshman playing in a Rose Bowl as “kind of surreal.”

Those true freshmen could not have predicted where they’d be with the Utes this time last year. But now that it’s happened, they’re seeing firsthand the lauded potential of the program moving forward.

“I really truly believe we can be a powerhouse,” Glover said. “And to kind of see the bowl games we’ve gone to and the high-quality teams that we have beaten, it’s just great to see. It’s exciting just to be a part of the program. I’m just so excited to see how far we go.”