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‘It’s a neck-and-neck battle’: Utah’s Ja’Quinden Jackson, Bryson Barnes battling for QB2

One question needs to be answered before the 2022 season kicks off in the fall. Who will be Cam Rising’s backup?

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Utah quarterback Ja’Quinden Jackson steps back to pass during a recent Utah spring practice session.

Utah quarterback Ja’Quinden Jackson steps back to pass during a recent Utah spring practice session.

Utah Athletics

One of the reasons why there’s so much optimism at Utah this spring is the return of quarterback Cam Rising, an All-Pac-12 First Team selection. 

But one question needs to be answered before the 2022 season kicks off in the fall.

Who will be Rising’s backup?

The candidates are Texas transfer Ja’Quinden Jackson and unlikely Rose Bowl hero Bryson Barnes, a walk-on. There’s a battle for QB2 between Jackson and Barnes this spring. 

“It’s a great competition right now. Both guys are working really hard,” said offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig. “Ja’Quinden has done a lot of good things in the offseason in terms of tightening up his motion and he’s showing more repetitive accuracy. He had some live work (Tuesday) with some quarterback runs. It was real positive. Bryson Barnes continues to be a great operational guy. Great system mastery. He’s working on his repetitive accuracy. It’s a neck-and-neck battle. I’m fired up to watch it each day.”

Coach Kyle Whittingham is hoping both Jackson and Barnes gain experience through reps, and that a pecking order is established during spring practices. 

“We want to develop them but ideally we’ll come out with a No. 1, 2, and 3. We’ll see if that happens,” he said. “If it doesn’t, we’ve got plenty of time to identify that No. 2 and No. 3 guy. The sooner it’s identified, the better because then you can sync reps into the guys that you know are going to be on the depth chart.”

Whittingham has said that Jackson “has really improved his game since the fall. He’s worked hard in the offseason.” 

“They’re doing a great job,” Rising said of Jackson and Barnes. “They’ve been working their tails off all winter.”

Jackson likes competing with Barnes.

“It’s good competition,” he said. “Bryson is a good player and very smart and athletic and strong. We’re making each other better.”

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Utah quarterback Bryson Barnes lines up behind center during a Utah spring practice.

Utah Athletics

What’s Barnes’ approach?

“Just doing my thing. I’m not going to overthink anything. I’ve just got to play ball and prepare the same way as you would regardless,” he said. “That’s been my philosophy coming here, just keep preparing and put the work in off the field and it will pay off on the field. I’ve just got to be ready and stay ready.”

Both Jackson and Barnes appreciate what they’ve learned from Rising.

“I’ve learned a lot from Cam since I’ve been here. Cam is a smart player. He’s athletic and fast,” Jackson said. “He’s my roommate and so the night before games we sit and talk and I ask him questions about certain stuff. He breaks the playbook down to me and tells me how to look at stuff. Cam is a big help.”

Barnes said Rising’s personality has assisted him along the way. 

“He’s just a hard worker. He’s been through the wringer with injuries back and forth. And he just keeps battling. That’s something I really look up to him for that. No matter what comes his way, he’s always battling back. His knowledge and his play style — the kid’s a baller. I really look up to him. He’s a great player. That’s a great way to mirror myself, playing like him.”

With Rising, Jackson and Barnes, along with freshmen Nate Johnson and Brandon Rose, the Utes love the talent and depth of the quarterbacks room. 

“It’s great. We’re all building off each other and picking off where we left off last year. In the QB room, there are great friendships all around,” Barnes said. “We all kind of fed off Cam and his leadership and his knowledge of the system. He’s always got some good pointers for us as the younger guys to pick up on.”

“We probably have one of the smartest quarterback rooms in the country right now,” Jackson said. “We come up with ideas, we speak our minds. We compete every day and tell each other what we did wrong, stuff like that.”

Tight end Dalton Kincaid said the Utes have a lot of talent and versatility at quarterback.

“Cam’s super consistent. He comes in every day with the same attitude. There’s never really a drop off with him,” he said. “JJ’s had a phenomenal spring so far, moving in and out of the pocket, he looks really good. You saw what Bryson did in the Rose Bowl. Bryson’s always consistent as well. It’s nice knowing we have those three guys there.”

What is Jackson working on this spring?

“Speed, accuracy,” he said. “Everybody tells me I throw too hard so I’m trying to get a little touch on the ball.”

“He’s very versatile. He throws well on the run. He can throw well in the pocket,” Kincaid said of Jackson. “He throws the ball hard. The more comfortable he gets in the pocket, the better he’s going to be.”

Of course, Kincaid caught the game-tying touchdown pass from Barnes late in the Rose Bowlagainst Ohio State after Rising suffered a concussion.

Many might have been shocked by Barnes’ performance on such a big stage. But not the Utes. Not Kincaid. 

“No, not at all. Bryson’s thrown me that pass multiple times. I knew it was coming there as soon as I lined up. He put it in the perfect spot and made it easy for me,” Kincaid said. “When a leader goes down like that, it’s tough on a team. Bryson did a great job of getting the guys together and saying, ‘Let’s go do this thing.’”

Jackson said that although he was listed No. 2 on the depth chart, there’s a reason why he didn’t go in when Rising went down. 

With the death of two of his close friends, and teammates, Ty Jordan and Aaron Lowe, Jackson said he dealt with mental health issues during the season.

“Because of the situation with ALowe, it was more my part than anything,” Jackson said. “It was dealing with mental health … that’s what the case was.”

“We went through a lot last year as a team. He knew those guys a lot more personally,” Kincaid said of Jackson. “I can’t imagine what went through his head last year. It’s being there for him through it all. He’s got a lot of motivation this spring.”