Utes mailbag: Who will be QB2 behind Cam Rising this fall?

Plus: The road to basketball sustainability, an idea for a “Sopranos” spinoff, and more

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes quarterback Bryson Barnes (16) runs for a first down, as the Utah Utes face the Ohio State Buckeyes at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., on Saturday, Jan. 1, 2022.

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We are deep in the heart of the college basketball postseason, but the University of Utah football program will begin spring practice in two weeks.

There are a number of storylines facing Kyle Whittingham’s program as it looks to build off its first Pac-12 title and subsequent Rose Bowl appearance. Cam Rising may be the unquestioned QB1, but one of those storylines still centers on Whittngham’s quarterback situation.

We’re going to begin this Utes mailbag right there.

As always if you have a question for the Utah Utes mailbag, you can fire off a tweet to @Joshua_Newman, slide into my DMs, email me at jnewman@sltrib.com, or even leave a comment at the bottom of this story.

Q: “Handicap the backup QB battle? Let’s be honest, all my intrigue is with who the basketball team gets and how many slots will be open, but not sure how many times you can get asked that same question.” - @rkdavidson

A: In case you were on another planet during the Rose Bowl, let’s reset the scene for the football program as it pertains to its quarterback situation.

Late in the fourth quarter against Ohio State, Rising suffered an apparent head injury and was helped off the field. Second-year freshman walk-on Bryson Barnes entered the game in place of Rising — not highly touted Texas transfer Ja’Quinden Jackson.

Barnes performed beautifully, connecting with tight end Dalton Kincaid for a 15-yard touchdown pass to tie the game, which the Buckeyes ultimately won, 48-45. After the game, Whittingham confirmed that Barnes was QB2 for the game, while indicating that he was a little more ready to run the offense and make a throw when necessary compared with Jackson.

The mere fact that Barnes even took a snap in the Rose Bowl, let alone ahead of Jackson, the perceived QB2, brings into legitimate question what exactly is the plan for backing up Rising.

I’ve said this a number of times on the radio and written it a couple of times since the Rose Bowl: I think it’s a bit of a big-picture issue if Barnes has emerged, or eventually emerges as Utah’s QB2. That is not to say Barnes didn’t earn those Rose Bowl reps, or that he hasn’t earned the opportunity to fight for that spot in 2022, but seriously, what does it say about Jackson, or Utah’s quarterbacks room as a whole, if a walk-on from a 1A program can put himself in position to be one snap away from being the starter?

As I sit here writing this on March 8, with spring ball two weeks away and the opener at Florida now less six months out, I remain convinced that Jackson has all of the physical attributes and football IQ to get by Barnes and into position behind Rising.

I would like to believe that a player of Jackson’s caliber saw Barnes playing in the Rose Bowl as a wake-up call.

Only time will tell.

Q: “What’s more important to a sustainable, successful Craig Smith tenure at Utah: Success in the Transfer Portal or success at player retention? Key word here: more.” - @t_ricks96

A: Good question, I can make cases both ways, but you’re asking for one or the other.

For years, generations even, a big key to winning was player retention. Recruit well, coach your guys up, retain your guys, and when your guys are a little older as juniors and seniors, in theory, you should be in a position to contend.

Player retention can still lead you to success, but in this day and age of the NCAA Transfer Portal and the college athletics governing body’s one-time transfer waiver essentially offering free agency, those two factors have become paramount because if you’re able to leverage the portal well in a given offseason, you can turn your fortunes around in a matter of months.

In the case of Utah, I don’t think I’m breaking any news here when I say Craig Smith could use an upgrade to his personnel. How many scholarships Smith will have at his disposal will depend on how many current players leave for the portal, but based on some recent intel and, quite frankly, commonsense and the current climate of the sport, Smith and his staff are going to have multiple scholarships to play with for 2022-23.

Utah can become exponentially more competitive, not in a few seasons, but rather next season if Smith has even a couple of productive trips through the portal. Next season. That’s how quickly this can happen.

This is a very important offseason for the Utah men’s basketball program, and, for better or worse, the transfer portal is going to be a central reason why.

Q: “Most underrated U of U sports team?” - @trent_southwick

A: My initial instinct here is skiing, which claims 13 NCAA championships, one for the men’s program and 12 as a coed program, including last season.

That said, it’s time to talk about Utah’s men’s lacrosse team.

Men’s lacrosse is no longer rooted just in the Northeast or the East Coast, but the sport is still largely a new phenomenon in this part of the country. At a minimum, the balance of power in the sport at the high school and college levels remains 2,000 miles away, at places like Maryland, Rutgers, Georgetown, and Virginia.

Under first-year Utes head coach Andrew McMinn, Utah cracked the Inside Lacrosse Top 20 this week for the first time at No. 18. That poll has just two teams west of Michigan, the Utes and No. 20 Denver. That is how little representation the sport has in the Mountain and Pacific time zones.

Utah is working on something significant right now. It lost by a goal to then-No. 12 Denver, beat then-No. 17 Vermont, and most recently beat No. 8 Jacksonville to reach the top 20. A barometer-type game at No. 6 Georgetown will take place March 19. Based on what we’ve seen, Utah should at least qualify for the four-team ASUN Tournament. Based on what we’ve seen, winning the ASUN Tournament.

Not bad for the westernmost Division I team by several-hundred miles.

Q: “I really thought the Utes would go 2-3 to finish out the season. Going 0-3 was disappointing and left a lot to be desired. Any reason to be optimistic about next season?” - @torgy4three

A: You sure boiled things down, huh?

I thought Craig Smith was the guy when Mark Harlan hired him a year ago. I remain convinced for a number of reasons that Smith is the guy, but even if he’s not, he has five years left on his contract, so settle in.

Seriously, though. Lazar Stefanovic is clearly a long-term piece. Gabe Madsen’s best play is ahead of him. Rollie Worster isn’t going anywhere. Branden Carlson is an All-Pac-12 center who took steps forward in spite of a crazy amount of injuries and illness. Smith has pieces at his disposal, and as noted above, he will be in a position to bring on more pieces. Pieces of substance, pieces that can help move his program forward.

You’re finishing the first season of a coaching tenure in which had half the roster walk out the door upon arrival. He had to fill out the roster under rough circumstances and he didn’t have full control over his schedule. In totality, this roster and some of the envisioned role allocation did not pan out. No doubt about that, but I think there’s enough quality projected to return that there should be some optimism.

Of course, that optimism will only come if this offseason yields some help via recruiting, via the portal, but for now, yes, I remain steadfast that Smith can take this program where it wants to go.

Q: “I just finished “The Sopranos” for the first time. Excellent. Only “Breaking Bad” tops it for me. If you could create a Sopranos spinoff series a la “Better Call Saul” in the “Breaking Bad” universe, what would your angle be?” - @jimbokrats

A: Nice.

Of course, everyone has aged, some better than others, and James Gandolfini is no longer with us, but we can forget about all of those things for the purposes of this exercise.

In a perfect world, I would set a “Sopranos” spinoff in the mid-1990s.

As the origin story goes, Eckley DiMeo, the founder and boss of the DiMeo crime family, is sentenced to life in prison. Jackie Aprile was named acting boss, much to the chagrin of Junior Soprano. The displeasure of that decision bled into Season 1, which, to me, is the best season of the entire series.

I’d like to see the spinoff get into DiMeo being sent to prison, the decision to make Aprile acting boss, Junior’s displeasure, and Tony Soprano’s role under Aprile after the former rose to power within the DiMeo crime family. Years earlier during the mid-1980′s, Soprano began rising within the DiMeo crime family after the passing of his father, Johnny Boy.

I like a good origin story. “The Sopranos” web of figures, both well-known and minute, offers all sorts of possibilities for a spinoff. “The Many Saints of Newark”, which billed itself as something of a Tony Soprano origin story when he was a teenager, but turned out to be nothing of the sort, was an incredibly bad dud.