When sophomore walk-on quarterback Bryson Barnes trotted onto the field for Utah’s first offensive series Thursday night at Washington State, fans, media and other observers were understandably caught off guard. 

Nobody saw that coming.

“You couldn’t ask for a better guy to be under. The dude is a leader, he does things right, he’s a great player. He’s a great person overall. I couldn’t ask for a better guy to be above me right now and learn from.” — Bryson Barnes on Cam Rising

Not even coach Kyle Whittingham — until about 30 minutes before kickoff — as starter Cam Rising let the coaching staff know that he wouldn’t be able to play due to a lingering injury.

In his place, Barnes received his first career start and helped lead the Utes to a 21-17 victory

As No. 12 Utah prepares to host Arizona Saturday (5:30 p.m. MDT, Pac-12 Network), Rising’s status is uncertain. 

If Barnes is called upon again to take the snaps for the Utes, his coaches and teammates are confident in him, just as they were last week in Pullman. 

“He handled it really well,” wide receiver Devaughn Vele said about Barnes’ clutch performance against the Cougars.

Vele described the scene prior to the start of the game.

“We find out in the locker room right before we took the field. Coach Whitt let us know that Cam wasn’t going to be playing and that Bryson would be the one playing,” he said. “The whole locker room started to erupt into cheers because we know that he’s worked his butt off and we know that he’s capable of handling situations like that. I mean, for example, the Rose Bowl. We understood that he was ready to step up into any role that he was needed. He did really well. He commanded the offense really well and guys were comfortable with him being on the field.”

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Barnes completed 17 of 27 passes for 175 yards and a touchdown. He rushed eight times for 51 yards. 

Going into the game, Rising, who suffered a leg injury in the 43-42 victory over USC on Oct. 15, appeared on track to play after a bye week. 

“He had a setback the day of the game,” Whittingham said. “Cam Rising, if he says he can’t play, he can’t play because he’s one of the most competitive players that’s ever been through here.”

Whittingham added that he has built a strong trust with Rising. 

“Just spending three-plus years with him now on a daily basis, knowing him, who he is — his character and his personality and his competitiveness, his makeup, the whole thing,” he said. “There’s not a guy on the team that wants to win worse than him. He just disdains sitting out. He doesn’t want to sit out, he wants to play.”

Rising wasn’t made available for interviews this week. 

But Barnes was, and he said he’s taking the same approach in practice as he does before every game. 

Utah quarterback Bryson Barnes, center, prepares to take a snap during against Washington State, Thursday, Oct. 27, 2022, in Pullman, Wash. The Millford High product got a surprise start against the Cougars, and could be called upon again Saturday when the Utes host Arizona. | Young Kwak, Associated Press

“You’ve got to prepare the exact same way, regardless of whether you’re going in or not. You’ve got to prepare the same way and don’t take anything lightly,” Barnes said. “Cam could go down on the first play of the game. This time, I was in the first play of the game. You have to be prepared either way.”

Last Thursday marked the first time Barnes had played a full game in three years, back when he played at Milford High. 

Barnes said Rising helped him on the sideline during the game. 

“Cam was super supportive every time I’d come off the field. He was telling me what he was seeing and we’d talk through it,” he said. “It’s kind of the same type of deal when I was signaling in plays, if I see something that he might not be seeing, kind of that relationship. Having a guy that’s been there, done that, a veteran player on the sideline, giving you input, it definitely goes a long ways.”

Rising has been a mentor of sorts for Barnes since he’s been in the program. 

“You couldn’t ask for a better guy to be under. The dude is a leader, he does things right, he’s a great player,” Barnes said. “He’s a great person overall. I couldn’t ask for a better guy to be above me right now and learn from.”

Offensive line coach Jim Harding said offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig managed the situation with the change at quarterback in a positive manner just before the game. 

“Coach Lud has a personal relationship and probably had conversations with Cam and he knew how he was feeling,” he said. “But as it’s been documented, if Cam didn’t feel good, coach wasn’t going to put him in. With Bryson being in the system himself for three years, it certainly wasn’t the same player (as Rising) — each of them have their strengths — but it was a little bit of an adjustment. We’ll do what’s best for the players and that’s the decision that was made.”

Utah quarterback Bryson Barnes absorbs a hit by Washington State’s Armani Marsh on Thursday, Oct. 27, 2022, in Pullman, Wash. Utah won 21-17. | Young Kwak, Associated Press

What does Harding see as Barnes’ strengths as a quarterback? 

“He almost to a fault is too aggressive when he runs. Coach Lud referred to it as ‘a linebacker as a quarterback,’” he said. “But his competitiveness, I think he has the belief in the locker room, that’s not to say that Cam doesn’t. I’m not trying to cause any issues that way. I think our kids have a lot of confidence in Bryson. He goes about his business as a pro. Those are things that if Cam isn’t able to go, we’re completely confident in Bryson as well.”

Vele underscored that he and his teammates believe in Barnes. 

“It was a little bit different (playing without Rising) but it wasn’t too crazy. Bryson runs with the ones as much as he runs with the twos. The transition was so smooth,” he said. “It wasn’t one of those things where everyone was, ‘Oh, shoot, what are we going to get?’ We knew what we were going to get.

“Bryson has stepped into that role. He’s that person we can trust. He has that trust factor and that leadership factor. It was weird not having Cam out there, it wasn’t that much different. Having Bryson in there, we’ve been catching balls from him. So it was a good transition.”

Utes on the air

Arizona (3-5, 1-4)

at No. 12 Utah (6-2, 4-1) 

Saturday, 5:30 p.m. MDT

Rice-Eccles Stadium

TV: Pac-12 Network

Radio: ESPN 700