Kyle Whittingham knew Utah needed more than just a healthy Cam Rising to contend in the Big 12

After a season of Bryson Barnes and Nate Johnson, Utah has its quarterback healthy again for 2024, but Kyle Whittingham recognized that he needed to support Cam Rising through the transfer portal.
Utah Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham and quarterback Cameron Rising (7) lift the PAC-12 Football Championship trophy
Utah Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham and quarterback Cameron Rising (7) lift the PAC-12 Football Championship trophy / Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

With Cam Rising playing quarterback for the Utah Utes, the Pac-12 Championship went through Salt Lake City. Kyle Whittingham’s team won back-to-back conference titles with Rising and went to consecutive Rose Bowls, but on January 2, 2023, his team lost more than just “The Granddaddy of Them All” to Penn State in Pasadena. 

Cam Rising, Whittingham’s veteran quarterback, tore his ACL, MCL, meniscus, and MPFL, forcing him to miss the entire 2023 season. Without its quarterback, Utah, suddenly a perennial Pac-12 power, floundered in the final year of the conference, going 8-5 with the year culminating in a Las Vegas Bowl loss. Now, Utah is heading to the Big 12, the conference where Rising’s collegiate journey began at Texas in 2018, but his head coach wisely recognized that to compete for the conference title, he’d need more than just his 7th-year quarterback. 

Utah began the season with Bryson Barnes at quarterback and in Week 1 he relied heavily on play-action deep shots to out-duel Florida’s Graham Mertz for a 24-11 win, but the Utes defense obviously played a pivotal role. Despite instability on offense and injury problems, Whittingham’s prized unit finished 4th in rushing defense and 13th in total defense while allowing just 19.3 points a game. 

Barnes wasn’t able to maintain that level of play and was benched by Week 3 after going just 6/19 in a Week 2 win against Baylor 20-13. Nate Johnson, a prized 2022 recruit, provided dual-threat ability but struggled to keep the offense on schedule. Barnes took over again in Week 7 and led the team to a 4-4 finish after a 4-1 start. 

For the season, Utah was 120th in passing offense and 107th in yards per play. Johnson finished with 94 dropbacks and of the 183 quarterbacks in the country who registered at least that many, he finished 103rd in yards per attempt while Barnes was 132nd at 6.5. Johnson and Barnes also ranked 139th and 126th respectively in adjusted completion percentage according to PFF. 

Barnes’s final stat line was 1,572 passing yards with a 58.7% completion rate and 12 touchdowns to 11 interceptions. In 2022, Rising threw for 3,030 yards and 26 touchdowns to eight picks while completing 64.3% of his passes. Rising also averaged 7.8 yards per attempt and posted an adjusted completion rate of 71.8% which ranked 72nd of 172 quarterbacks with 100 dropbacks that season. 

A more complacent veteran coach than the 64-year-old who has been at Utah since 2005, would have sat on his laurels in the offseason and distilled the disappointment down to a lack of quality quarterbacking. However, that doesn’t tell the whole story of Utah’s offensive struggles in 2023, and offseason inactivity simply wasn't an option.

The Utes had 5 players who received at least 15 targets last season and among the national sample of those players, only Munir McClain, who caught just 15 passes for 269 yards and two touchdowns, ranked inside the top 250 of receivers and tight ends in yards per route run at 1.94. DeVaughn Vele who led the team with 43 grabs for 593 yards was 261st at 1.81 and he only racked up 3.4 yards after the catch per reception (684th among the same sample). 

If somehow there was any need of further proof that Utah lacked playmakers on the offensive side of the ball, Utah’s best running back was a converted safety Sione Vaki who played two-ways down the stretch of the season. The defense is in place, but even to compete at the top of a watered-down Big 12, Whittingham needed to take big swings on the offensive side of the football in the transfer portal. 

So, he saw Barnes and Johnson both out the door, replacing them with former five-star Sam Huard as quarterback depth behind Rising and his surgically reconstructed knee. Then, he went to work at the skill positions. With Vele and Vaki both gone, Utah added three wide receivers, Damien Alford from Syracuse, Dorian Singer from USC, Taeshaun Lyons from Washington, tight end Carsen Ryan from UCLA, and Idaho running back Anthony Woods. 

Alford statistically outpaced Vele last season and Singer is a one-time 1,000-yard receiver back in 2022 at Arizona. Those two will fit nicely with McClain who emerged as a physical threat at 6-foot-4 220 pounds late in the season. Anthony Woods will slot into the backfield with Rising as the featured running back, and suddenly, if Rising can stay healthy a full year removed from his injury, Utah can have one of the best offenses in the Big 12. 

The Big 12 is winnable and claiming the top spot in the conference means a trip to the 12-team College Football Playoff. Rising and Utah were left on the outside looking in with back-to-back three-loss regular seasons in 2022 and 2021, hence the urgency from Utah's coaching staff to capitalize on the power vacuum atop this reconfigured conference and maximize Rising's final season of eligibility.

With Texas and Oklahoma leaving the now 16-team conference that stretches from Arizona to West Virginia Kyle Whittingham’s willingness to adapt and admit his team’s faults could mean that the conference title will run through Salt Lake City, just like it did in the Pac-12 when Rising was last leading the Utes.

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