One question about Utah’s football team is answered in the middle of each week, when the Ute equipment staff reveals the upcoming uniform combination. Another mystery is solved only about a half-hour before kickoff, when Drew Lisk or Jason Shelley quarterbacks the No. 2 offense in the pregame warmup.
The No. 12 Utes will wear black jerseys and pants in the school’s “Dark Mode” promotion Saturday night vs. California, plus black helmets with the “Ute Proud” logo in a double-theme game at Rice-Eccles Stadium. The No. 2 QB? As usual, that could be either Lisk or Shelley — and this week, that’s potentially a trick question.
One of them could become the starter, if a leg injury makes senior Tyler Huntley unavailable. Huntley has said he intends to play. “I’m sure he’s going to do everything he can to get back and ready for this game, because it’s his last season,” teammate Zack Moss said.
Either way, Lisk’s rise in the program has created a new dimension in Utah’s 2020 quarterback competition. The race to replace Huntley next year figured to be between Shelley, who started five games in 2018 when Huntley and was injured, and Cameron Rising, who’s sitting out this season after transferring from Texas.
That was before Lisk, a former walk-on from Jordan High School, was named the No. 2 QB for multiple games. He came in for six plays last week vs. Arizona State after Huntley initially was injured in the second quarter. Shelley then played the fourth quarter, due to his running ability, coach Kyle Whittingham said, with the Utes protecting a 14-3 lead.
The relief appearance produced “pretty much the first meaningful snaps I've had here at Utah,” Lisk said, “but I got in there and felt confident. With the guys around you that we've got here, it's hard to not be confident.”
In a 7-0 game, Lisk's first pass went to running back Zack Moss for a 14-yard completion on third and 14. Huntley later returned and found Derrick Vickers for 16 yards on fourth and 8, extending Utah's drive to a touchdown.
Shelley’s most memorable plays were his circling back in an effort to scramble for a first down, only to be sacked, and his handoff to Moss for a 32-yard touchdown run that sealed the 21-3 victory and made Moss the school’s career rushing leader. Otherwise, the offense stalled with Shelley in the game.
Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig, who was not made available to the media this week in Utah's five-game rotation of assistant coaches, would have an interesting choice Saturday if Huntley doesn't play against one of the Pac-12's top defenses. Picking a starter may be different than naming a backup, in what Ludwig has turned into a weekly competition. That process is “good for both of us,” Lisk said. “That means each day, each day at practice, we've got to bring it and prove ourselves. … I certainly enjoy knowing that each and every day, I have a chance to prove myself.”
Shelley applauds Lisk's development, saying, “I've always known his potential.” Having been promoted suddenly last November, Shelley understands the role of being prepared to play, without knowing if that will happen: “Everybody thinks the backup quarterback kind of has it easy, you don't really have to do much. … But I think it's the one position where, when you're called upon, you've got to be ready for the unexpected.”
Shelley succeeded on a spot basis vs. Washington State last month, with a package of running plays designed to give Huntley a break. That's another possibility against Cal.
Rising has a different kind of challenge than the other quarterbacks, practicing while knowing he won’t play. This past summer, after the NCAA denied his request for a waiver to become immediately eligible as a transfer, he said he would “be the best scout-team quarterback in the country.”
He smiled this week when reminded of that promise, saying he's trying to live up to it as he helps prepare Utah's defense for the next opponent. “It's tough trying to do that, with a such a good defense, but it's fun,” Rising said. “That's all I can do. I absolutely love it. There's not a boring day; it's always fun being around these guys and there's always something new every day.”
That could be even more true this week for Lisk or Shelley.
CALIFORNIA AT No. 12 UTAH
When • Saturday, 8 p.m.
TV • FS1.