Opinion: Did The Utes Play The Right Backup Quarterback?

Sep 12, 2023, 9:25 AM

SALT LAKE CITY – Utah football has had an interesting history with the quarterback position and who the backup will be since joining the Pac-12 in 2011. 2023 is proving to be no different.

Starter Cam Rising is still working on getting clearance to play from his surgeon per Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham after sustaining an ACL tear in the Rose Bowl at the beginning of this year. While it sounds like Rising is close, he’s not there yet which has left the Utes having to figure out who his backup should be.

Through the spring Utah had Brandon Rose and Nate Johnson take the majority of the snaps- that is until Johnson got a little banged up and limited. That opened the door for reigning backup quarterback Bryson Barnes to get back into the mix. In fall camp the opposite happened. Rose sustained a long-term injury that knocked him out of the race after, by all accounts, taking the lead.


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An Un-ideal Situation At Crunch Time For The Utes

With Rising being close in his recovery, but not a slam dunk to play against Florida and the expected number two quarterback out with an injury- Utah had a choice to make.

Do you go with the guy you have some film on in Barnes, or do you go with the guy with a presumed higher ceiling that maybe wasn’t quite ready? The Utes opted for both. Sort of.

Barnes was technically labeled as the second in command behind Rising, but Johnson got quite a bit of play too. Both had moments where they looked pretty good. Both had moments where they didn’t.

After a hot start, the offense did appear to bog down a bit in the second half under Barnes who got the bulk of the reps, but it was easy enough to assume at the time Utah was just burning clock and sitting on a lead.


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While not the greatest performance ever by a quarterback, Barnes did enough to earn the trust of the coaches to be the guy behind Rising again against Baylor. He even earned a scholarship for the effort.

However, Barnes struggled mightily against the Bears and was eventually replaced in the last two drives of the game by Johnson who led the Utes to a game-tying drive and a game-winning drive.

Did Utah Choose The Wrong Quarterback?

Ben Anderson of KSL Sports Zone had a strong take on this question which was, yes, Utah chose the wrong quarterback.

“The point is, Bryson Barnes threw an interception in the first half and got so rattled, he never bounced back,” Anderson said. “Now, he never should be Utah’s starting quarterback with all due respect to Bryson Barnes. He’s an unrecruited, no-scholarship, walk-on quarterback out of Milford, Utah, who is starting at a very high-level DI program. Top 15, basically perennial program. Probably not a whole lot of reason he’s there and Nate Johnson, who, by the way also had an offer to Michigan probably should be getting those reps because he has a certain level of talent that is catching eyes across the country.”

I have a bit of an in-between take on this question. I believe Utah made the right choice initially with the information they had available, knowing full well that Barnes likely was not going to be in the mix for the starter position next season. Utah knew what they were getting in Barnes against Florida while still being able to test the waters a bit with Johnson.

Where I think Utah went wrong was keeping Barnes in the Baylor game through the third quarter when it became painfully apparent there was a disconnect between himself and the rest of the offense. At that point, the Utes were already losing the game and handing the reigns over to Johnson wouldn’t have made that outcome any worse because they were already there.

However, what it possibly could have done was turn the game around quicker and more efficiently than what we ultimately saw. Maybe instead of a seven-point eeker of a win, Utah makes it a two-score game? Whatever the case, it became apparent the risk of putting Johnson in was well worth the reward.


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An Important Reminder: Players Are Human

However you feel about Utah’s quarterback situation behind Rising, it is important to remember these players are human and giving their all for their team and community.

Yes, things were ugly for Barnes in Saturday’s contest, and yes, it was time to try a different direction with Johnson, but that is never an excuse to be a jerk. It’s ok to be critical of the play out on the field, that’s why we all watch, but it’s also important to remember guys like Barnes put a lot of love and energy into what they do. Sometimes with very little glory or reward.

“I just feel like the Bryson Barnes attacks or hate or really even dissecting deep into some of his lack of ability is just, unwarranted,” Hans Olsen of KSL Sports Zone said. “Bryson Barnes is a gap-filler. Bryson Barnes, I believe, is playing the absolute best his abilities will allow him to play. I think he’s a hustler.”


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Michelle Bodkin is the Utah Utes Insider for KSLsports.com and host of both the Crimson Corner Podcast (SUBSCRIBE) and The Saturday Show (Saturday from 10 a.m.–12 p.m.) on The KSL Sports Zone. Follow her on XInstagram, and Threads: @BodkinKSLsports

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Opinion: Did The Utes Play The Right Backup Quarterback?