From Lowe’s to legendary pass: How Bryson Barnes (now on scholarship) is making an impact

Utah quarterback Bryson Barnes throws against Florida in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023, during the Utes’ season opener. With starting quarterback Cam Rising still recovering from an injury, Barnes got the nod and led Utah to a 24-11 victory over the Gators.
Utah quarterback Bryson Barnes throws against Florida in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023, during the Utes’ season opener. With starting quarterback Cam Rising still recovering from an injury, Barnes got the nod and led Utah to a 24-11 victory over the Gators. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
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Utah’s victory against Florida was a little sweeter for Bryson Barnes.

After quarterbacking Utah to a 24-11 win over Florida at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Thursday night, the good news kept rolling in for the junior from Milford, Utah, who walked onto the team in 2020.

Barnes got word that he was on athletic scholarship.

“Never thought I’d get the opportunity to make a play like that, first play of the season.” — Utah receiver Money Parks

Despite representing Utah on one of the biggest stages in college football two years in a row — he appeared in the Rose Bowl after Cam Rising left with a concussion in 2022 and an ACL injury in 2023 — Barnes didn’t have a scholarship at the start of the 2023 football season.

With 122 players on Utah’s 2023 roster and an 85-scholarship limit set by the NCAA, some players inevitably must pay their own way through school while practicing and playing football.

Barnes picked up a part-time job at Lowe’s to help pay his tuition bill.

Now on scholarship, he doesn’t have to worry about that anymore.

“It definitely helps a lot. You don’t have to worry about paying for school. I don’t have to go back to Lowe’s and kind of work a part-time job anymore. So definitely some perks to that for sure,” Barnes said, adding that his parents, Chris and Stacy, are happy about the news.

Utah has always had trust in the 2018 1A MVP, who still holds the Utah state record for career passing touchdowns (137). He won the backup job with the Utes three seasons in a row, beating out four-star quarterback Nate Johnson for the primary role this year, though Johnson was and will continue to a be a big part of the Utes’ offense and led drives against Florida.

With star Rising out against the Gators, still not cleared by doctors to return to play, Barnes trotted onto the field on a hot day at Rice-Eccles Stadium with the eyes of a school-record crowd of 53,644 and an ESPN national TV audience on him.

Having prepared as the starting quarterback all week — a first for Barnes during his collegiate career — he knew what play offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig was going to call.

On Wednesday, Ludwig and coach Kyle Whittingham met to go over the offensive game plan against Florida. Ludwig had his list of opening plays, including a play-action pass deep shot.

The play wasn’t initially first on the list. No one would have blamed Ludwig for playing it safe on the first offensive play of the season with a backup quarterback.

Then Whittingham asked Ludwig, “What do you think about taking a shot on the first play?”

“I got it,” Ludwig said.

Tasked with a deep ball to open the season, no one would have faulted Barnes — making just his second-ever start for Utah — for having some nerves in the huddle.

But that wasn’t the case.

“We actually kind of knew what play we were going to come out with and so there was no nerves. You knew what was going to happen. Ball’s on the left hash, that’s the play we’re running. So it was just go out there and let it rip,” Barnes said.

After Utah’s defense forced a three-and-out on Florida’s first drive, Utah’s red-clad fans gave Barnes some encouragement as he ran onto the field.

From his own 30-yard line, Barnes took the snap under center from Jaren Kump on the left hash, faked the handoff to running back Ja’Quinden Jackson, and sat in a clean pocket.

One second.

Two seconds.

Three seconds.

He set his feet on Utah’s 21-yard line.

Then he let it rip.

Barnes uncorked a pass that traveled more than 50 yards through the air into the hands of Money Parks, who caught it at the Florida 25-yard line and ran untouched into the end zone for a 70-yard touchdown, sending Utah faithful into a frenzy.

“The one thing I remember was letting the ball go. The second part was him catching it, No. 10, and once I saw him caught it, there’s nobody catching him. So it was just a matter of getting down there to celebrate with him,” Barnes said.

Barnes ran down the field, turning to Utah’s sideline and pounding his chest.

Parks, who was set up on the right hash, ran a deep post route, beating Florida cornerback Jason Marshall Jr. Gators safety R.J. Moten was focused on Devaughn Vele, who sprung open on a crossing route, and Moten wasn’t in quite the right position to defend the deep ball.

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The two Gators converged as Parks caught the pass from Barnes, with Moten tripping up Marshall Jr., who couldn’t reach the former high school track sprinter as he raced into the end zone.

Utah 7, Florida 0.

Scoring drive — one play, 70 yards, 11 seconds.

“That’s pretty great. That stuff you talked about when you’re a little kid like, ‘Man, what if we threw a touchdown the first play of the game?’” Barnes said postgame.

Parks described the touchdown as a dream come true.

“Never thought I’d get the opportunity to make a play like that, first play of the season,” he said.

You couldn’t write a better script if you tried.

That touchdown ranks high in Barnes’ memory, alongside the game-tying score in the 2022 Rose Bowl and the pivotal road win over Washington State as the starting quarterback in 2022.

Utah Utes quarterback Bryson Barnes celebrates his touchdown throw to Utah tight end Dalton Kincaid during the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., on Saturday, Jan. 1, 2022. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Utah Utes quarterback Bryson Barnes celebrates his touchdown throw to Utah tight end Dalton Kincaid during the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., on Saturday, Jan. 1, 2022. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

The Utah native and former walk-on from a tiny town of 1,431, who grew up on a pig farm, shocked a national audience on his first snap of the contest on Thursday.

It didn’t shock the people in Utah’s program, however.

“I’m proud of Bryson. I’m not surprised. No one’s more invested than Bryson Barnes and he’s shown continual improvement through his career here,” Ludwig said. “He’s our guy right now and I’m very proud of the way he played.”

Barnes finished the game against Florida going 12 for 18 for 159 yards and a touchdown through the air, and added a 5-yard touchdown run on the ground. After the 70-yard TD pass to open the night, he managed 89 yards the rest of the game. Importantly, he had no interceptions or fumbles.

“That’s something we talk about and we preach each and every day. We go through ball security drills. ... You win that turnover margin, the percentages of winning just goes up and up,” Barnes said.

As Whittingham said postgame, Barnes didn’t put up “gaudy” numbers. He showed that he can uncork a big play and managed the game well, but Utah’s offense didn’t score in the final 26 minutes. Utah’s lack of production by running backs didn’t help Barnes either.

With as good as the defense was on Thursday, an average performance was all that was needed.

“We were a little dull at times, but I feel like when we were dull it was because of a lack of execution. Especially being a quarterback, you definitely kind of take that upon yourself to be able to get that spark in the team and be able to get the momentum rolling,” Barnes said.

If Rising is out against Baylor, Barnes will be called upon again, but knows he has to perform better if the Utes want to improve to 2-0.

“We’re looking to get better. He’s got to get better as we all do,” Ludwig said.

Barnes is one of the first people to show up at Utah’s football facility and one of the last to leave, as ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit recalled on Thursday’s broadcast.

Even as Rising returns to practice with no limitations this week, Barnes will continue to prepare like he’s the starter.

“For me personally, I just got to keep doing the things that I’m going to do each and every day, regardless of if (Cam) plays or if he doesn’t,” Barnes said.

If called upon Saturday in Waco, Texas, Barnes will be ready, and his teammates and coaching staff have all the trust in the world in him.

“I love the way he competes. I love the way he just takes on the game and how he’s keyed in on everything he needs to do to help the team win,” Parks said.

Utah QB Bryson Barnes (16) throws against the Florida Gators in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023, during the opener.
Utah Utes quarterback Bryson Barnes throws against the Florida Gators in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023, during the season opener. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News