Utah QB competition again takes center stage with truncated seven-game season set

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah coach Kyle Whittingham walks off the field during a lightning delay as Brigham Young University (BYU) hosts the University of Utah, NCAA football in Provo on Thursday Aug. 29, 2019.

The University of Utah’s quarterback competition is exactly where the Utes left it six months ago, when the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out the remaining 80% of spring practice, followed by any semblance of a normal offseason routine.

Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham said on a Zoom call Thursday morning that his team will open training camp Oct. 9 in preparation for a truncated seven-game season. At that time, it will be a three-way quarterback competition between South Carolina graduate transfer Jake Bentley, redshirt senior Drew Lisk and redshirt sophomore Cameron Rising.

“The sooner it happens, the more ideal for us as far as naming a guy and letting him get all the reps with the 1s,” Whittingham said. “More importantly than that is getting the right guy named. We’ve got to quickly narrow that down to two, and when I say quickly, within a week hopefully. A week or so after that, narrow it down to one and have a pecking order.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Quarterback Jake Bentley runs some plays during spring practice, Tuesday March 3, 2020

Based on that loose timetable, Whittingham and offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig are zeroing in on roughly Oct. 23 to have a starter named, which would give that player 14 or 15 days of full first-team reps before the Utes open on Nov. 6 or 7 against a to-be-announced opponent.

Utah held spring practices on March 2, 3, and 5, then left for spring break before the pandemic saw to it that no one returned to campus. In those early days, Rising impressed more than Bentley, which was to be expected.

Rising was forced to sit out the entire 2019 season after transferring from Texas, but he spent that time wisely, up in the booth with Ludwig during home games in an effort to better understand the offense. Bentley missed most of his senior season at South Carolina with a broken foot, announced he was transferring to Utah in December, and was on campus in January in time for the start of the spring semester.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Quarterback Cameron Rising works out during spring practice, Tuesday March 3, 2020

After the first spring practice on March 2, Whittingham said, “Jake is still thinking a little bit, he’s still digesting the offense,” while noting that putting a lot of stock into one day, without full pads or even shells, would not be helpful.

How Bentley has digested Ludwig’s offense to this point will be a key early-camp storyline, but the fact remains that Bentley started 33 games as an SEC quarterback. Meanwhile, Rising has not taken a meaningful snap since his senior year at Newbury Park (Calif.) High School, and Lisk has attempted just nine passes in three seasons, all of them coming in 2019 in backup duty to Tyler Huntley.

“Going in, it’s going to be all three on equal ground, equal footing and getting the same amount of reps until we can get it to two,” Whittingham said. “When we get it to one, we’ll give the majority of the reps to whoever that guy is.”

(Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah freshman QB Drew Lisk looks to the sideline to get the play call to finish off Utah's 30-14 bowl game win over West Virginia. Earlier, Utah QB Troy Williams, took off his shoe in order to be forced from the final 1:50 of the bowl game vs West Virginia so Lisk could take the game's final snaps in these frames from the ESPN broadcast of the Heart of Dallas Bowl played Tuesday, December 26, 2017.

Whittingham outlines training camp plan

With an Oct. 9 start, Utah will have either a 28 or 29-day training camp, depending on whether it opens the season on Nov. 6 or 7.

Utah has not made a full camp schedule public, but Whittingham said the Utes would also practice on Oct. 10. Per NCAA rules, the first two practices must be padless with only helmets. The third and fourth practices can add shells and the fifth practice can be fully padded.

Based on the calendar, that fifth practice with full pads and contact should occur towards the end of the week beginning Oct. 12. Being fully padded and able to use full contact isn’t something Utah has done since the Alamo Bowl nine months ago. The Utes never got to full pads in spring practice, with that third and final practice including only helmets and shells.

Whittingham’s hope is to get two live scrimmages in during camp. One of them would be three weeks before the opener, Oct. 16 or 17, and the other two weeks before the opener, Oct. 23 or 24.

“We’ve got to be smart about how we do it,” Whittingham said. “You don’t want to go into the season underprepared. There’s a sweet spot that we’re going to try to hit and it’s no different this year than any other year other than it’s been an extended period of time that we haven’t had contact this particular year, but we’ve got to monitor that closely.”