Bryson Barnes has Utah football believing in their pig farmer quarterback

After struggling earlier in the season and getting benched, Barnes has returned to action and led the Utes to back-to-back victories. His teammates and coaches say he’s a different player now.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes quarterback Bryson Barnes (16) throws a pass during warmups before football action between the Utah Utes and the Weber State Wildcats, at Rice-Eccles Stadium, on Saturday, Sept. 16, 2023.

The legend of “The Pig Farmer” just continues to grow.

That’ll happen when you go from being a walk-on who’s working at Lowe’s to pay for school to starting at quarterback and throwing a 70-yard touchdown on the season’s first play from scrimmage and beating Florida … to being benched for struggling mightily against lackluster Baylor … to coming off the bench to momentarily give your team a spark at Oregon State before absorbing a brutal hit that sends you to the hospital with bruised ribs … to playing your best game of the season in leading a comeback victory over USC at the Coliseum.

Naturally, Bryson Barnes’ teammates on the Utah football team are thrilled to see him succeeding.

“I’m just grateful to have a quarterback like him,” said tight end Landen King. “Honestly, man — the pig farmer!”

Obviously, there was a bit of luck in Barnes’ second act as the Utes’ QB this season.

It doesn’t happen if Cam Rising isn’t ultimately ruled out from playing at all this season. And it doesn’t happen if redshirt freshman Nate Johnson doesn’t come to struggle as much as Barnes did as a passer — or perhaps even more so.

But the Milford native also earned another shot, because, well, he’s simply better now than he was then.

“Big step forward. He seems to get better each week,” said head coach Kyle Whittingham. “… I just think the way he’s operating now. He never was not confident, but he seems very sure of himself and very confident in what he’s doing. Really taking charge, just running the team like quarterbacks should run it. That ‘it’ factor of being a leader on the field is really starting to manifest for him. And obviously, getting the full allotment of the No. 1 reps now that we know the situation helped him last week, as well.”

King agreed with the confidence component.

While Sione Vaki has rightly gotten attention for giving the team’s attack some much-needed juice, Barnes has assumed command of the offense.

“He’s carrying himself like a QB1, he’s carrying himself differently because he got that ‘C’ on his chest now,” said King. “I really feel like everybody on the team is really bought into Bryson now, and he honestly feels it and he’s just playing better because everybody’s rooting for him. He knows that we all have his back. … He’s really taken control of this team. He’s a real leader for us, seriously.”

To King’s point, Barnes was recently elected a team captain by his peers.

Whittingham said that with both of the offensive captains — Rising and tight end Brant Kuithe — not playing this season, he figured the Utes should have some “acting captains” on that side of the ball for the remainder of the season, alongside defensive captains Karene Reid and Cole Bishop.

Offensive lineman Keaton Bills got the nod from his teammates a few weeks back. And Barnes got the honor — and the addition to his jersey — ahead of the USC game.

“It definitely means a lot. You know, I’m excited to be able to be elected as a captain, first of all, so I can represent my teammates,” he said. “And you know, at the end of the day, it just shows kind of the respect and trust that I have from the rest of the team to be able to hold that position.”

That respect and trust comes from what he’s now demonstrating on the field.

He’s certainly put in the work to make big progress.

“Bryson Barnes is one of those guys who’s in here watching the film on his own, coming in early, doing those little things to get prepared,” said Bills. “So when he’s back there, you know he’s prepared, you know he’s gonna do his job.”

It doesn’t always translate perfectly, of course. There’s no denying that pick-six in the fourth quarter which gave the Trojans some momentum and kept them in the game was an awful, awful decision.

But he also made plenty of smart choices, and plenty of daring, impactful plays.

“Bryson is a very sharp kid. That position entails being able to manage the offense — and he can manage the offense,” said receivers coach Alvis Whitted. “He’s shown he’s very capable of making plays for us, with the ball in the air or with his legs. It’s pretty cool to see.”

His running plays were some of the biggest of the game.

Utah quarterback Bryson Barnes (16) runs with the ball during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Southern California, Saturday, Oct. 21, 2023, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Ryan Sun)

He had two on the game-winning final drive, including a 26-yard scramble that put the Utes in field-goal position with five seconds remaining.

“Yeah, dropped back, kind of felt the pressure, stepped up in the pocket, took off running, saw No. 9 [USC linebacker Raesjon Davis] chasing [Ja’Quinden Jackson], and knew that he didn’t know that I was running the ball right there,” Barnes recalled. “And so just get what you can.”

Of course, “just get what you can” means a little more when your QB is leaning into contact at the end in an effort to get every bit of extra yardage he can, to make the ensuing go-ahead field goal try a bit easier for kicker Cole Becker.

“He’s a tough guy. He’s a really tough guy. That last drive, those two scrambles where he lowered the shoulder and just went — that’s who he is, that typifies his style of play and what he’s all about,” said Whittingham.

When asked if he’d prefer his quarterback not to take that kind of contact, the coach replied, “Probably so, probably so. But in that situation, game was on the line. I mean, every scramble and run is not created equal, and in those, that was critical that we get every yard because we’re maneuvering for field-goal position.”

King, meanwhile, said that’s the kind of play that will endear you to your teammates.

“I don’t know about everyone else, but when I see that as a player, looking at a quarterback putting his shoulder down like that, trying to get an extra yard if he can, man, that’s just gonna make me go extra hard for him,” King said.

(Mark J. Terrill | AP) Utah quarterback Bryson Barnes, right, celebrates with teammates offensive lineman Kolinu'u Faaiu, left, running back Jaylon Glover, second from left, and tight end Landen King during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Southern California Saturday, Oct. 21, 2023, in Los Angeles.

While Becker was the ultimate hero for drilling the winning kick, and Vaki got his deserved flowers for another monstrous performance, there was a good reason that Whittingham dropped his now-famous They’ve got a Heisman Trophy winner, we’ve got a pig farmer line in the game’s aftermath.

The Utes probably don’t win that game if he doesn’t play as well as he did.

“Man, I love Bryson Barnes — we’ve been pretty close friends since he’s been here, and just to see him go out there and compete at that level was amazing,” said Bills. “After the game, I went up to him, just hugged him, and I just said, ‘So proud of you!’ And it was such a fun night to see him succeed like that.”

Barnes has been through a lot in just seven games this season.

There were questions from the outset about whether he was good enough. There were groans and jokes in equal measure when he struggled against Baylor. There was the scary moment in Corvallis. And now there’s near-universal praise after the adrenaline- and endorphin-spiking USC victory.

He doesn’t bother claiming that he’s impervious to the ups and downs — he is human, after all. But he’s trying not to get too high or too low.

“I mean, yeah, it can be a little frustrating at times,” said Barnes. “But you know, at the end of the day, you’ve got to control what you can control. And so that’s kind of been my mindset throughout the whole thing.”

Classic pig farmer mentality — just get back to work.