Week after week, in both the NFL and FBS college football, we seem to be talking about the same stars carrying their teams to the top. And why not? Is there anyone more exciting than Patrick Mahomes, or more competitive than Josh Allen, or more gifted than a healthy Joe Burrow? While it looks like Caleb Williams at USC is now trending NOT to repeat his Heisman year of 2022 he’s still damn pretty to watch when he’s executing his Mahomes impression. And the studs threatening his 1st team All-America throne are the same QBs we expected including Michael Penix at Washington, Bo Nix at Oregon and Sam Hartman of the Irish.

But, there are other QB stories in 2023 that can really warm your heart. Let’s start with the Pac-12. There is one Quarterback who has been painfully out of the spotlight this year, Cameron Rising of Utah. In 2021 and 2022 Cam Rising led Utah to back-to-back Pac-12 Championships. Along the way he passed for 45 TDs against only 13 pics over two seasons. But in the 2023 Rose Bowl vs Penn State Cam’s luck would run out as he went down with a severe knee injury.

Utah’s Cam Rising to Redshirt

Initial reports on Cam Rising was a torn ACL. Throughout Spring and Summer camp, head coach Kyle Whittingham was tight-lipped about the QB’s status and projected return. There was hope in Utah circles that Rising would make it back this year. That no longer appears to be the case. There is now speculation of a redshirt year for Rising. Cam came clean last week sharing publicly, “It was not just a torn ACL but also a torn meniscus, MPFL and MCL.” A horrific injury. We wish Cam Rising well as this injury has been compared to Kyler Murray’s at Arizona.

“The Next Man Up”

Obviously, this is not the “feel-good” story. The “feel-good” story is about the “next man up” at Utah. Bryson Barnes had been a back-up to Cam Rising for three years heading into 2023. He attended HS in Milford, Utah, and in his high school career passed for 11,344 yards and a state record 137 TDs. He also rushed for 1,951 yards and another 47 TDs. On defense as a safety he accounted for 115 tackles and 4 interceptions. Milford won two state championships. Wow, what a resume! However, there was a problem. All that success at Milford was at the Utah 1A high school level (the lowest). His high school coach, Thane Marshall, tried in vain to convince Power 5 programs his QB was a player. They didn’t listen. And one other thing, Bryson grew up on a pig farm in southern Utah. Remember that, it’s important. He grew up always working when he wasn’t playing.

Bryson was offered several scholarships from Group of 5 conference schools. He was also offered preferred walk-on status with the “U.” According to his wife, Brittlyn, “Bryson wanted to go to the biggest challenge he could face.” So he did, as a walk-on. After a redshirt year and a lot of sitting on the sidelines Barnes made his collegiate debut in the 2022 Rose Bowl (following the 2021 season) replacing an injured (Concussion) Cam Rising in the 4th quarter against Ohio State. He threw the game-tying Touchdown to TE Dalton Kincaid with 1:54 seconds remaining. But CJ Stroud had a monster game and brought the Buckeyes back to win 48-45. In 2022 with Rising back as QB1, Barnes played sparingly until the 2023 Rose Bowl vs Penn State when Cam Rising went down with the knee. Barnes and Utah would not overcome the loss of Rising as Penn State prevailed 35-21.

Bryson Barnes Steps Up

As the 2023 edition of Utah football was evolving there was still speculation that Rising might make it back for the big season opener vs the SEC’s Florida Gators. Head coach Kyle Whittingham and OC Andy Ludwig kept the competition for the QB1 slot intense right up to the opening game. Bryson Barnes and Nate Johnson split QB1 duty throughout the preseason. Finally, Whittingham made the decision to go with Bryson  Barnes. Barnes has said he found out he was starting about an hour before kickoff against Florida. It clearly didn’t catch him unprepared as Bryson Barnes hooked up with WR Money Parks for a 70 yard TD pass on the very first play from scrimmage. Utah would prevail for a 24-11 opening Day victory. Bryson would finish 12 of 18 for 159 yards, the one TD and zero picks. But Nate Johnson did play, completing only 3 of 4 for 6 yards but rushing 6 times for 45 yards and a TD.

We’re still not at the feel-good part yet. Barnes would start the following week vs Baylor with lackluster results in the 20-13 Utah win. For the next three games (two wins and a loss to Oregon State 21-7) Bryson Barnes would be benched in favor of Nate Johnson. Finally Whittingham, with the Utes offense in the doldrums, turned back to Barnes for the Cal game and the Utah offense began to gel as a transitioned Safety, Sione Vaki, came in to rush for 158 yards on 15 carries. Barnes was a respectable 15 of 21 for 128 yards and another 50 yards and a TD on the ground as the Utes dominated time of possession.

Finally Feel-good Time

Now it’s “feel-good” time. Last Saturday night Utah traveled to the LA Coliseum for a showdown with the Caleb Williams led Southern Cal Trojans. Bryson Barnes was the starter and going up against the Heisman Trophy winner in prime-time. Both teams went in at 6-1 and ranked in the top 25. The Pac-12 Championship was in the balance. The score was tied 14-14 at the half. Bryson was flawless in the 3rd period and tossed TD passes to Landen King and the converted safety Sione Vaki as the Utes went up 28-14. But in the 4th quarter Caleb brought the Trojans back with an 11 yd TD run to pull ahead 32-31 with 1:46 left in the game. But, USC missed the two point conversion! Utah had time for one more drive. The crowd was going nuts, hungry for a Southern Cal win against the back-to-back Pac-12 champions.

One Last Drive for Glory

Bryson Barnes calmly engineered the drive to put Utah in a position to kick the winning FG. On his final snap from scrimmage Barnes dropped back, saw an opening, dodged and weaved, and barreled his way 26 yards inside the USC 20 to set up the winning kick with 5 seconds left. Kicker Cole Becker made it official from 38 yards out as time expired and Utah prevailed 34-32.

We’ve Got Ourselves a Pig-Farmer at Quarterback!

The Pig Farmer had out-played the Heisman Trophy winner as Bryson Barnes was 14 of 23 for 235 yards with 3 TD passes and one pic. He also ran 10 times for 57 yards and another TD. Williams would throw for a respectable 256 yards but with zero TD passes for the second week in a row. As Whittingham said after the game, “You know they’ve got a Heisman winner so they’re going to make some things happen… but, we’ve got ourselves a pig farmer at quarterback, and we’re proud of that guy, too. What a warrior he is.” They were in fact proud enough to award Bryson Barnes a full scholarship following the game. When asked about the scholarship, Bryson responded, “Well, this is huge. I guess I don’t have to go back to Lowes and work my part-time job.”

Now that feels good. The small town, hardworking, family-oriented Quarterback waiting in the wings for three years wins the job and wins the big game. He’s also won the hearts of a lot of fans across the country. His smile in the post-game interview on national TV said it all. He had arrived. And there is still more excitement to share. Now 6-1 and ranked #13, Utah will host #8 Oregon (6-1) and another one of those Heisman hopefuls, Bo Nix, this week in Salt Lake City. Stay tuned!

Florida Gators Find a Quarterback?

Recall Bryson Barnes’ first start in 2023 was in Gainesville against the Florida Gators? The game where his first pass went 70 yards for a score? Well, the Quarterback on the other side of the field that day has his own story. It’s a story of success, failure and how a Quarterback can reinvent himself.

Graham Mertz won a state championship as a junior at Blue Valley North in Overland Park, Kansas. His senior year they were the runner-up but Graham still completed 61.1% of his passes for 3,886 yards and a state record 51 Touchdonws. Unlike Bryson Barnes in Utah, Graham Mertz was performing his skill sets at the 6A level in Kansas. He was recognized as Gatorade Kansas Football Player of the Year and invited to the All-American Bowl following his senior season. All of this added up to a four-star rating by Rivals and ESPN rated him the best pocket passer in the class of 2019. Unlike Bryson Barnes, Graham Mertz would not need to rely on a preferred walk-on status. He had his choice from a plethora of Power 5 schools including Alabama, Georgia and Texas A&M. Eventually Graham selected the Wisconsin Badgers. ESPN called Mertz the most hyped Quarterback in Madison since Russell Wilson.

An Auspicious Debut for Mertz

As a true freshman in 2019, Mertz competed with junior Jack Coan for the QB1 job. Ultimately Coan would win the competition and Mertz would redshirt his freshman season. Fast forward to 2020; Coan was injured in practice and Mertz began the season as the starter. Graham Mertz started his first game as a Badger against Illinois with 17 consecutive completions, tying the school record. He wound up the day 20 of 21 with 5 TD passes in the 45-7 rout. He was named Big Ten Co-Offensive Player of the Week as well as Freshman of the Week. Off and running, right?

Then a Pandemic Attack!

Hold on. The day after the game Mertz would test positive for COVID-19 as part of a team-wide outbreak that would cancel the Badgers next two games. The next game the team and Mertz would play was against Michigan, and Wisconsin dominated the Wolverines 49-11. But Mertz did not appear to be the same player in that game, throwing for a modest 127 yds with 2 TDs. Ultimately, Wisconsin would hit the wall the next three weeks losing all three conference games. In that stretch Mertz threw for just one passing TD while throwing four interceptions. Mertz and the Badgers finished 4-3 and with a win over Wake Forest in the Dukes Mayo Bowl.

When you look over Graham Mertz’s career at Wisconsin there is a steady decline in production. In 2020 the team went 4-3 and Mertz completed 61.1% of his passes. In 2021 the record went up to 9-4 but Mertz’s accuracy went down to 59.5% and finally in his last year at Wisconsin the team would go 6-6 and Mertz would complete only 57.3% of his passes. His career TD passes to interceptions metric was a very poor 1.4 to 1.0 ratio. During this period many of the Badger faithful were critical of the Graham Mertz decline. The old saying at quarterback goes, “You’re never as good as they say you are, and you’re never as bad as they say you are.” But the buck stops with the Quarterback, and Graham Mertz took his share of the heat.

Wisconsin and Mertz Were Not a Match Made in Heaven

Let’s break it down. Mertz was a star in high school while running a wide open West Coast type offense. He rarely took a snap under center in high school. Wisconsin has always been known as an offensive run-first team with a dominant defense. The play-action pass is a big part of the Badgers’ offensive scheme as a compliment to the run. It’s been observed that Mertz’ lack of experience under center contributed to a lack of technique and footwork when executing Wisconsin’s bread and butter play-action passes. In retrospect one wonders how/why Graham Mertz and Wisconsin football fell in love? There were some basic disconnects before Mertz even arrived on campus.

As Graham progressed through his career in Madison, the coaching staff doubled down with more game plan responsibility on the QB. A natural progression, but not if you still haven’t mastered the basics. To try and mitigate Graham’s lack of growth, head coach Paul Chryst created a revolving door of coaches in the Wisconsin Quarterback room. In fact, in his three years playing at Wisconsin Graham Mertz had three different Quarterback coaches running the Quarterback position. Not ideal. I can tell you first hand, with the Atlanta Falcons I had four different head coaches and four different Quarterback coaches in my first four years with the team. It’s no picnic sorting out last year’s techniques and coaching expectations with the new guy on the block.

A Coaching Change and the Transfer Portal Can Be Synonymous

Clearly, Mertz did not benefit from the shotgun coaching approach, nor did Paul Chryst who was fired in 2022 after a 2-3 start. It was a stunning development for Chryst who had not only played Quarterback at Wisconsin, coached under the great head coach Barry Alvarez, and had posted a sterling 67-26 won/loss record in his seven seasons as head coach. When the team played out the season it was announced in November that Luke Fickell, the highly successful head coach at Cincinnati, would be the Badgers’ new head coach in 2023.

Graham Mertz did what it seems like all red-blooded college football players do; he hit the portal. Billy Napier, the first year head coach at Florida was in dire need of a QB. His starting QB, Anthony Richardson had just declared for the NFL Draft. Then in November 2022 freshman QB Jalen Kitna (Son of NFL QB Jon Kitna) was arrested on a bizarre set of pornography charges. The charges would eventually be dropped in a plea deal, but Kitna entered the portal prior to the 2023 season. Meanwhile reserve QB Jack Miller lll, an earlier transfer from Ohio State, was injured in 2022 and played only one game. Miller’s 36 career passing attempts at Florida represented ALL of the QB experience returning for 2023. So the Gators needed some warm bodies in the QB Room.

32 Career Power 5 Starts is Not a Bad Investment

Enter 5th year senior Graham Mertz to Gainesville in January 2023, along with all the Badger baggage. Needless to say, the Florida faithful were simply looking for a QB to take snaps before the arrival of the heralded 5-star recruit DJ Lagway in 2024. But Napier, coming off his first season at Florida with a 6-7 record, was looking for stability at the QB position. He liked the idea that he now had a QB on the roster that had 32 Power 5 starts under his belt. He also saw the chip on Mertz’ shoulder that reflected a burning desire to prove himself once and for all as an elite Quarterback.

In his previous head coaching gig at Louisiana, Napier had retained the play-calling duties even as head coach. It worked well enough to produce a 40-12 record over his four seasons, so Napier has been hands-on with all the Florida QBs as well. According to the coach, there was no clear winner of the QB1 job through Spring and into summer camp. There were even reports that Florida was seeking yet another scholarship Quarterback via the portal.

Milford, Utah meet Overland Park, Kansas

Graham Mertz would prevail in summer camp and win the QB1 job, but be careful what you ask for! Florida traveled to Salt Lake City in week one to play two-time defending Pac-12 champ Utah and their Pig Farmer QB Bryson Barnes. It was almost over after that opening 70 yard strike by Barnes. Florida could not get  on track and while Mertz was 31 of 44 for 333 yards and a TD, the balance was not there and they could only generate 13 yards rushing against a stalwart Utah defense in the 24-11 loss. There would be no rest from a tough schedule as the Gators next faced #21 Tennessee at the Swamp. This time the running game cranked, Mertz added 19 of 24 and a TD, and the Gators never looked back. They took a 26-7 lead into halftime and prevailed 29-16. It was a huge win in a big rivalry! A real “feel-good” story.

Over the next four games, with the exception of hitting the wall at Kentucky, Florida would continue to progress as a team. The Wildcats ran over, around and through the Gators with 329 yards rushing. Mertz countered with 25 of 30 for 244 yards but it wasn’t nearly enough in the 33-14 loss. But overall Florida was improving and the progress has been led by Graham Mertz. Following the Kentucky loss he was 30 of 36 and 3 TDs vs Vandy in a 38-14 win. In the week 6 shootout at South Carolina Graham Mertz killed a few demons from the past. The Gators were trailing 37-27 with under 10 minutes to play, and Mertz put the game and the Gators on his shoulders. With 4:40 left he hit Alis Boardingham with a 4 yard touchdown pass. And on the final drive of the game with :47 seconds on the clock Graham hit Ricky Pearsall with a 21 yard strike to put the gators ahead for good. He would finish the game 30 of 48 for 423 monster yards and 3 TDs.

Now That’s a “Feel-Good” Feeling!

Head coach Billy Napier on Mertz: “You can’t help but respect the competitive spirit of the kid, the toughness, the decision making. I thought he was fantastic. Never flinched.” In his last two games, both SEC conference games, Graham Mertz has thrown 6 Touchdown passes with zero pics. For the year he has 12 TD passes and only 2 pics. His completion percentage of 76.2% ranks third in the nation. Oh, and his completion rate on play-action passes is 9.4% higher than his average at Wisconsin. That’s elite.

Graham Mertz has seen it all. Fabulous success in high school and QB1 as a redshirt freshman at a Power 5 Big 10 school. The good-but-not-great feeling of being “the guy,” but not realizing your potential. The stress and tension of a locker-room going through a coaching change in mid-season. The reality of needing to move on to succeed. The transfer portal. The baggage that follows you. The skeptics. The believers. Finally Graham Mertz found the right coach, the right offensive scheme, at the right school at just the right time. He’s making the most of it. Congratulations Graham!

But you’re only as good as your last game. Mertz and his Gators have a huge challenge and, just maybe, a huge opportunity Saturday playing in Jacksonville against #1 Georgia in the World’s Largest Cocktail Party. Georgia is #1 in pass defense and #1 in total defense and is giving up only 14 pts per game. Florida is a 14.5 pt Dawg. I have a feeling the kid from Overland, Kansas may have something to say about that. I know I’ll be tuning in!

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