Utah football’s three-way QB competition enters second week

Two facts back up any argument that Jake Bentley will be the starting quarterback at the University of Utah this fall.

Any graduate transfer with one year of eligibility is going to choose his next destination based on how likely it is that he’ll get to play. In this case, Bentley is a graduate-transfer quarterback from the University of South Carolina.

Furthermore, Bentley started 33 games across four seasons for an SEC program. That is 33 more than either of his fellow-competitors, redshirt senior Drew Lisk or redshirt sophomore Cameron Rising, have started in their respective careers.

But don’t pencil in Bentley just yet. No one knows what Kyle Whittingham is really thinking and the Utah coach says he has a legitimate three-way quarterback competition.

“I think the SEC has really prepared me to get through any situation,” Bentley said on a Zoom call with reporters Monday. “This is a totally different offense for me. A lot of people run the same concepts, but this offense is complex. It takes a lot of learning, a lot of film work, and that’s what I’ve been having to do. I think on-the-field experience in the SEC has helped a lot, but as far as learning the offense, it’s something I’ve really had to rely on Coach, and Drew and Cam to soak up their knowledge as well.”

Utah was scheduled to hold its third camp practice Monday, and its first with shoulder pads. The Utes will go with uppers again on Tuesday before full pads come out Wednesday. They will scrimmage live for the first time Saturday and at that point, Whittingham expects three quarterback candidates to become two.

That first scrimmage Saturday will be a giant opportunity for separation between Bentley, Rising and Lisk, but within that, how Rising performs demands attention. He does not have the game experience Bentley has, but he does have more experience working under offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig.

Rising took a redshirt in 2019 following his transfer from Texas. He spent home games up in the press box with Ludwig, gaining a unique perspective as to how the OC and his offense operate. Beyond that, Rising quarterbacked the scout team, which means he was going up against Utah’s first-team defense every day. As it turns out, Rising was practicing against a bunch of pros because all five members of Utah’s 2019 secondary are gone to NFL rosters or practice squads.

(Photo courtesy of University of Utah Athletics) Utah quarterback Cameron Rising.

Bentley, meanwhile, spent most of his 2019 season sidelined with a Lisfranc fracture in his left foot, suffered in South Carolina’s season-opening loss to North Carolina.

“The time I spent up in that press box was very valuable,” Rising said. “I got to see a whole different side of football that I’ve never really been able to see and hopefully I’m able to think how Coach ‘Lud’ thinks and keep moving forward.”

Added Whittingham: “As far as their knowledge of the playbook and their grasp of the scheme, it’s outstanding. All three are exceptionally smart individuals. Cam, Jake and Drew are all cerebral. They study the film constantly, so that is not an issue whatsoever, the mental part of it. It all boils down now to execution.”

Earlier this year, before the COVID-19 pandemic halted football activities, Whittingham voiced the fact there was no guarantee Lisk would be back for a fifth year. A one-time walk-on who was awarded a scholarship in 2018 as a redshirt sophomore, Lisk has seen action in six games, including four last season behind All-Pac-12 quarterback Tyler Huntley.

He’s back.

“A lot went into it, but at the end of the day, I just decided this program has done nothing but great things for me,” Lisk said. “It was four great years before this. At the end of the day, I didn’t want to pass up an opportunity for a fifth year. I’m happy to be here, more than happy to be here, and even happier now that we have a season to play this fall.”

The pandemic has wreaked havoc on all facets of college football, but this Utah quarterback competition remains where we left it in early March. It is still Bentley’s high-level game experience vs. Rising’s experience under Ludwig, with Lisk offering a mature fifth-year option.

Whittingham and Ludwig, to their credit, are not looking to drag this out. Assuming Utah is down to two quarterbacks by the end of this weekend, the Utes are scheduled to scrimmage for a second and final time on Oct. 24, two weeks before the Nov. 7 opener vs. Arizona.

Regardless of whether or not it becomes public knowledge, expect Whittingham to settle on a starter not long after that second scrimmage, giving that starter roughly two weeks to get ready for the first game.

For what it’s worth, the pandemic has already guaranteed quarterback intrigue later, too. The NCAA Board of Governors on Aug. 21 green-lit a Division I Council recommendation that fall sport student-athletes can compete in any amount of competitions this year and it will not count as a season of eligibility.

Simply put, the eligibility clock is frozen, which means we could be here again a year from now, with Bentley still eligible and Rising still having three years to play. The only difference will be four-star recruit Peter Costelli, the cornerstone of Utah’s 2021 recruiting class, will be added to the mix.

One thing at a time, though. Utah has dynamic receiving options for 2020, so it needs to figure out who’s getting the ball to them.

Bentley wants the task.

“I’ve had this extended time to really get to learn and really dive deep into the offense,” he said. “I think in the spring, it was a little bit of drinking water through a firehose and just trying to soak up as much as I could. Having a break really allowed me to dive deep and learn it.”

And his teammates say the ultimate goal is for the team to be ready to not just play, but win.

“We’ve kind of taken it upon ourselves to make sure that we stayed ready throughout this whole entire process,” Rising added. “Just making sure that we stay on course.”