The University of Utah opened fall camp on Wednesday afternoon, but depending on who you ask, the first practice didn’t totally feel like a first practice.
The Utes are projected to return 17 starters in 2022. Among them, Cam Rising was a revelation last fall at quarterback, Tavion Thomas rushed for over 1,100 yards and 21 touchdowns last season, both were named All-Pac-12 last season. Up and down the projected two-deep, there are third-year, fourth-year, even fifth-year guys at some positions.
Opening camp with that amount of experience presumably means less of a learning curve for the players.
“Without a doubt, and it’s very evident they spent a lot of time on the field together this summer on their own because today was more like a practice 8 or practice 9 feel as far as the lack of mental mistakes and how smooth things went,” 18th-year head coach Kyle Whittingham said.
Whittingham’s assertion that Wednesday felt like the Utes were essentially 10 days into camp already was a compliment borne out of, not just the offseason work his players put in, but the groundbreaking Pac-12 championship season they are emerging from. Winning the Pac-12 and getting to a Rose Bowl means the players returning should understand what it takes to get to that level, and what it’s going to take to get there again.
Whittingham felt one way, but not everyone was in agreement Wednesday.
“I appreciate the head coach’s take on that, it looked like a day one to me,” fourth-year offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig said tongue-in-cheek, drawing a laugh from the assembled media. “We have plenty of things to work on. You’re looking at fifth-year players and first-year players in the same thing. There’s plenty of work to be done.”
Jokes aside, Ludwig was willing to admit having as many veterans as Utah does makes for hitting the ground running on the first day of camp a little bit easier.
There are no wholesale changes coming to the Pac-12′s No. 3-ranked offense from a year ago (431.1 yards per game). There will be some tweaks or modifications, but it’s nothing Ludwig’s veterans haven’t already been exposed to. His main concern as August wears on will be giving away too much trust at the expense of skipping fundamentals and diving too deep into schemes too early in camp.
The offensive coordinator giving away too much trust is an interesting concept for these Utes, because Ludwig has every reason to trust Rising as they begin their fourth season together.
The fifth-year junior was exceptional last season, throwing for 2,493 yards, rushing for 499 more, and accounting for 26 total touchdowns as Utah won nine of its last 11 games with Rising as the starter. This, after blowing out his shoulder in the 2020 opener, then losing a camp competition to Baylor graduate transfer Charlie Brewer.
The shoulder injury was dredged up on July 29 at Pac-12 media day in Los Angeles when Rising said at one point that he was not fully healthy, essentially never healthier than 80%, which limited how much he and the Utah offense could throw deep downfield.
To be clear, Rising was terrific last season in working almost exclusively with short and intermediate routes within an offense that ran 58% of the time, but not being able to go deep limited some options and halted how effective the passing attack could have been.
Rising said in LA that the shoulder feels better now than it did last season, then reiterated as much on Wednesday.
“It feels like it’s back,” Rising said. “Last year, it didn’t feel all the way getting comfortable throwing the deep ball, but this year, I feel a lot more comfortable getting the ball downfield and pushing it.”
Added Whittingham: “He’s one of the hardest workers on the football team, if not the hardest. You can talk about it, but you have to be about it. His performance is outstanding, his film study, everything. There is no weakness in Cam Rising right now. He’s doing everything right coming off an outstanding year, and we’re fortunate to have him on our team.”
Nine months removed from major surgery to his throwing shoulder when he took over for Brewer, Rising was apparently not fully healthy, but certainly healthy enough. Assuming better, if not full health this season, Whittingham, maybe rightfully so, wants more out of his quarterback.
He wants Rising to go down the field when the opportunity presents itself.
“If we’re going to take the next step offensively in our evolution, it is being more big-play oriented on the outside,” Whittingham said. “That’s the next phase and really the final phase. We’ve always had a strong run game, the play-action pass game is good, the intermediate game, but we’ve got to hit on those deep balls on the outside. If we can do that, watch out because this offense could be pretty good.”
Rising and the Utes will have two scrimmages in camp to get dialed in.
“Typically, you have two or three scrimmages devoted to complete live work,” Whittingham said. “We’re having two because we feel a lot of guys are proven commodities. Other live work will be mixed in, but there will be less live reps than a typical fall because we have so many veterans.”
Kump given green light, slotted at right tackle
Whittingham on Wednesday offered one definitive piece of personnel news. Third-year freshman offensive lineman Jaren Kump has been fully cleared and is currently slotted in at right tackle.
Kump started four games last season — three at left tackle and one at right tackle — before he was lost for the season in early October to torn knee cartilage. Kump was limited during spring practice, but Whittingham said at the time he expected the former Herriman High School star to be ready in time for camp.
With Kump at right tackle and All-Pac-12 lineman Braeden Daniels set to move from that spot over to left tackle, the only offensive line intrigue this month will be the three interior spots, but even that might not have a ton of guesswork involved.
Keaton Bills has started 12 of the last 16 games at left guard, while Sataoa Laumea has 18 career starts at right guard. Center is a little less defined, but Paul Maile has three career starts there, all coming last season.