What is Bryson Barnes walking into?
The former starting quarterback at the University of Utah is transferring to Utah State and will join the Aggies for the 2024 season.
Barnes, a record-setting quarterback at Milford High School, had a preferred walk-on offer to Utah State coming out of high school, but chose the same offer from Utah.
“I think competition makes everybody better and I don’t think quarterback is any different. Matter of fact, it’s the most important position on the field. It just is. They are all important, but if you don’t have a quarterback, you have no chance. If you struggle at quarterback you’re gonna see it in wins and losses.” — USU coach Blake Anderson
It worked out for him, as Barnes ultimately played in 24 games with the Utes, starting 10, most of those starts coming this past season in relief of an injured Cam Rising.
In four years at Utah, Barnes threw for 2,025 yards, 17 touchdowns and 13 interceptions, completing 181 of 301 passes; he also rushed for 391 yards and three touchdowns.
Now Barnes will join the Aggies with two years of eligibility remaining.
Normally, when a player transfers from a Power Five program to a Group of Five program, outside expectations are that that player will start right away. Particularly when that player was a P5 starter and even more so when they are a quarterback.
Barnes’ status as a P5 starter comes with some context, though.
He was Utah’s fourth-string quarterback before the 2023 season began, but injuries to Rising and Brandon Rose, plus the ineffective play by Nate Johnson, opened the door for him to take over as the Utes’ quarterback.
Still, in his Utah career Barnes played in multiple Rose Bowls, won key Pac-12 games, both at home and on the road, and led the Utes to wins over nonconference P5 opponents.
So will Barnes be the Aggies’ starting QB opening day (Aug. 31) against the Robert Morris Colonials?
The case for Cooper Legas
Legas, the Aggies’ incumbent starting quarterback, returned for another year following what was his best season as a college quarterback.
Despite splitting time with Hillstead — more on that in a bit — Legas threw for 1,815 yards, 19 touchdowns and eight interceptions this past season.
He was a dynamic downfield passer, ranking third among all G5 quarterbacks in downfield completion rate — meaning throws of 15-plus yards — at 51.4%.
Per Pro Football Focus, he was the Aggies’ highest-rated quarterback by far, with an overall offensive rating of 74.8 and a passer rating of 71.9, both of which had him in the same tier— but better than — players like Oklahoma State’s Alan Bowman, Purdue’s Hudson Card and Louisville’s Jack Plummer.
Legas was the highest-rated quarterback who played for a Utah-based FBS program, slotting in 18 spots higher than BYU’s Kedon Slovis and 30 spots higher than Barnes.
What’s more, Legas was the Aggies’ QB for the majority of their victories, either as the starter or filling in for an injured Hillstead, the lone Aggie win not featuring Legas coming in the regular-season finale against New Mexico when Williams’ heroics carried the day for Utah State.
Legas and Hillstead battled back and forth for the starting quarterback job for much of the season, beginning with the Aggies’ loss at Air Force, but by the end of the year, coach Blake Anderson conceded that the job was Legas’ for the remainder of the year and that he may have made a mistake not sticking with the former Orem High standout from the get-go.
“It was difficult to make the (QB) change earlier (in the season),” Anderson said in early November. “We knew we were gonna be throwing a freshman (Hillstead) out there that wasn’t quite there yet. Didn’t want to make the change in the first place. Despite what a lot of people (think). Those people really don’t understand.
“I just knew we had to control the forced turnovers,” he continued. “And when Coop takes care of the forced throws and throws it away or checks it down, he is as good as anybody. But we are not good enough as a team to overcome those (mistakes).
“... We can look back now, and I don’t know, maybe we should have made some changes along the way. I’m just proud of how (Legas) has responded.”
Legas did suffer a serious shoulder injury in the Aggies’ second-to-last game of the regular season and missed both the bowl-clinching win over New Mexico and the bowl game loss to Georgia State, but, health permitting, he has every argument to being the Aggies’ starting quarterback to start the 2024 season.
The case for Spencer Petras
Early in December, Petras, a multiyear starter at Iowa, announced that he was transferring to Utah State for his final season and he signed with the Aggies when the early signing period opened.
Petras didn’t play in 2023 after suffering a shoulder injury during the 2022 season, an injury that required surgery and significant rehab, and instead worked as a graduate assistant/student coach for the Hawkeyes this past season, his time primarily spent with the offensive line and quarterbacks.
Prior to that injury, Petras played in 35 games for Iowa, from 2018 through 2022, and was highly productive, particularly considering the lack of offensive success the Hawkeyes are known for.
All told, Petras threw for 5,199 yards, 24 touchdowns and 19 interceptions during his time at Iowa, with his best season statistical season coming in 2021, when he threw for 1,880 yards, 10 touchdowns and nine interceptions, completing 57.3% of his attempts.
Listed at 6-foot-5, 231 pounds, Petras impressed the Aggie coaches, who decided they needed to look into adding a quarterback with the type of background that Petras has.
“We found Spencer early in the process,” Anderson said. “I think us playing those guys (Iowa) and him seeing our offense up close and personal had a big impact on him. On his willingness to look at us and really his interest in us.
“We felt that a guy that had played that many snaps at that higher level was somebody we absolutely had to look into. The stats are a little bit misleading and you had to look beyond the stats to find out who the person was, what coaches and teammates and people that have trained him say about him. ... We felt like that he makes the room better.”
Per Anderson, Petras was not promised anything other than the chance to compete for the starting job and he committed to join the Aggies with the expectation that Legas would be back.
That, to Anderson, said more than anything else about Petras.
“He knew Coop was going to potentially be here. He did,” Anderson said. “We had no way to know if Coop was going to stay or go. He (Petras) had to assume that he was going to be competing with another senior, as did Coop. He (Legas) understood that Spencer had committed to come and he was going to be competing against another senior. To me, both of those guys choosing that (competition) makes the room better.”
The case for McCae Hillstead
A former three-star recruit and quarterback of a dominant Skyridge High team, Hillstead was one of the prized recruits of the Aggies’ 2022 class.
Said Anderson when Hillstead signed in December 2022: “He brings tons of things as a player. He is a 10.7 (second) 100-meter guy who can make every throw.
“To go head-to-head with Washington State on him and get him to stay home (was huge). He committed to us and then took a visit to Washington State with an offer. He came back and said, ‘Utah State is where I want to be,’ and never wavered. He is competitive, fast and mobile. A great guy to build around.”
Hillstead was the Aggies’ third-string quarterback to start the 2023 season, but by the Air Force game had risen to second on the depth chart, surpassing Williams.
When Anderson felt that Legas couldn’t lead the Aggies to victory over the Falcons, after a dismal first quarter, Hillstead entered the game.
The freshman impressed, completing 18 of 27 passes for 202 yards and three touchdowns, though he couldn’t lead the Aggies to an improbable victory.
Still, the starting job was his, with Anderson noting, “He (Hillstead) did not put the ball in harm’s way, he kept his eyes downfield. He made quick decisions … moved the chains with his feet, was not afraid of the moment and I think he will only get better with the reps he’s going to get as a starter.”
Hillstead went on to start games against James Madison — against whom he threw for 399 yards, four touchdowns and three interceptions — and UConn.
A concussion suffered against UConn forced Hillstead to miss multiple games, and a subsequent ankle injury prevented him from looking like he did against Air Force and JMU the rest of the year, though he did play as a reserve against San Diego State, Boise State and Georgia State.
Per Pro Football Focus, Hillstead was a solid quarterback, though not as good as Legas, rating nearly the same as Barnes, with a 68.7 offensive rating and a 68.8 passing rating (Barnes had a 68.8 offensive rating, a 62.3 passing rating and a 72.5 rushing rating).
Who should be USU’s starting quarterback next season?
Anderson’s stated goal this offseason was to improve the overall talent level of his roster, quarterback room included.
And with the additions of Petras and Barnes, the Aggies have done that.
“We wanted to elevate every room on the roster,” he said. “I want to make every position competitive. I think competition makes everybody better and I don’t think quarterback is any different. Matter of fact, it’s the most important position on the field. It just is. They are all important, but if you don’t have a quarterback, you have no chance. If you struggle at quarterback you’re gonna see it in wins and losses.”
When the Aggies added Petras, Anderson said that the job is completely up in the air for next season between Legas, Petras and Hillstead.
“I love where we’re headed,” Anderson said. “I think Spence brings maturity, experience, a huge arm and decision making; all that he’s done in extremely difficult situations there in Iowa. Either he is going to win the job and make us better, or he’s going to make Coop better.
“Who knows where McCae fits in to all this, maybe he wins it. ... You can’t count him out of the mix. We saw at times this year where he played an extremely high level and has the skill set to help lead us to win.”
“... It is all about making our football team better and creating as much competition and as many answers in the room as we could. And clearly we think we’ve done that.”
All the more so now that Barnes is in the mix.
Whoever wins the job, the expectation will be that Utah State’s offense continues to be elite. The Aggies’ offense was arguably the best in the Mountain West in 2023, with USU ranking No. 1 in total offense, No. 4 in passing offense and No. 4 in rushing offense.
With key returners like record-breaking wide receiver Jalen Royals, a three-head rushing attack featuring Robert Briggs, Davon Booth and Rahsul Faison, plus a revamped offensive line with multiple P5 transfers, things should only improve in 2024.
Whichever quarterback can make that happen will get the starting nod.