Bryson Barnes explains his decision to transfer, and his decision to stay through the bowl game

Utah’s starting quarterback for eight games this season knew Cam Rising’s return would relegate him to a backup again, but he also didn’t want his personal opportunity to hurt his teammates.

It’s not a regular occurrence that a player who has entered the transfer portal is allowed to stick around with his current team long enough to play in its upcoming bowl game.

But Utah coach Kyle Whittingham granted that privilege to Bryson Barnes.

The quarterback who became something of a cult hero in the program announced on Monday that he was entering the portal, but that he wouldn’t leave the Utes until after their Las Vegas Bowl matchup with Northwestern on Dec. 23.

“It was kind of mutual ground — they expected me to play in the game, and I wanted to play as well,” Barnes said. “We were on level ground, so that was the decision.”

When Cam Rising announced that he’d be returning for the 2024 season, Whittingham said he expected the trickle-down effect would be “natural attrition,” calling QB “the most volatile position” on college football teams’ rosters, and noting that, “The quarterback room has a way to settle itself and thin itself out.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes quarterback Bryson Barnes (16) throws a touchdown pass to Utah Utes tight end Dalton Kincaid (86) as the Utah Utes face the Ohio State Buckeyes at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., on Saturday, Jan. 1, 2022.

And that’s come to fruition, with Barnes, Nate Johnson, and freshman Mack Howard all among the Utes who are entering the portal.

Barnes, who started eight games this season as Rising recovered from a complicated knee injury, conceded Rising’s decision all but sealed his own.

“Cam coming back, gotta go explore other opportunities,” he said.

And no one on the Utes thinks any less of him for it.

“I mean, that’s what every other quarterback would do if they know [No.] 7 is coming back,” said running back Ja’Quinden Jackson. “So I don’t blame him.”

Whittingham was equally understanding.

“He also wants to have a chance to be a starting quarterback; with Cam coming back, barring injury, that would not happen here,” the coach said.

As for Barnes getting to helm the Utes in their bowl game against the Wildcats, Whittingham said the quarterback came to him with the suggestion, and the coaches quickly agreed, considering their only other option was gritty-but-limited Luke Bottari, who started the regular-season finale vs. Colorado when Barnes was out injured.

“He wants to finish the season, so he’ll be our guy in the bowl game, and then he’ll be moving on,” Whittingham said. “… It was his idea — he wants to finish what he started.”

Barnes added that after everything he’s been through during his time with the program — entering the Rose Bowl matchup with Ohio State two seasons ago, getting a surprise start vs. Washington State a year ago, replacing the injured Rising in last season’s Rose Bowl matchup vs. Penn State, and then enduring the ups and downs of an injury-riddled 2023 campaign — he couldn’t stomach the thought of his teammates feeling short-handed at quarterback for their final game.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes quarterback Bryson Barnes (16) finds his play as the Utah Utes host the Arizona State Sun Devils in NCAA football in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 4, 2023.

“These are the dudes I’ve been with since Day 1, and just because of my decision to leave, I’m not going to leave them hanging for a bowl game,” Barnes said. “… Leaving these guys for my own opportunities, personally, that doesn’t sit right with me. I just want to finish it out, finish what we started.”

He noted that they’ve all been together for pretty much “51 out of the 52 weeks out of the year. … These are the guys you grind through it with, you go through hell with each other.” He added that long after he’s forgotten specific details of games he played in, he’ll remember the friendships he made and the bonds he forged.

Which sounds like a pretty hokey platitude, except that the Utes swear by the impact he’s had on them.

“Bryson is probably one of the smartest quarterbacks I’ve ever been around. He works hard, and he knows football — his IQ is very high, he’s a smart guy,” said Jackson. “He basically saved us this season, just him playing hard every day throughout the weeks, playing through injuries. So I got the utmost respect for Bryson.”

The head coach concurred.

“He gave a ton to this program,” Whittingham said. “He’s a guy that we wish nothing but the best for and have a lot of gratitude for what he really gave to the program. And we’re grateful that he’s playing one last game with us.”

Barnes conceded he “got a little too banged up [vs. Arizona] to be able to play and play efficiently” against Colorado, but said he’s been feeling better in the intervening weeks — to the point that he feels ready to go against Northwestern.

And no offers from other programs in the interim will change that?

“I’ve had some,” Barnes admitted. “But I’m just really focused on the bowl game.”