USC’s Lincoln Riley and Utah’s Cam Rising almost wound up together at Oklahoma. Instead, they’re Pac-12 foes

Riley was the offensive coordinator when Rising committed there in the summer of 2016.

(Marcio Jose Sanchez | AP) Southern California head coach Lincoln Riley runs onto the field during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Washington State Saturday, Oct. 8, 2022, in Los Angeles.

When the 20th-ranked University of Utah hosts No. 7 USC on Saturday evening at Rice-Eccles Stadium, first-year Trojans coach Lincoln Riley will need to figure out how to slow down Utes quarterback Cam Rising.

Years ago, Riley and Rising nearly wound up on the same side, albeit 1,300 miles to the east in Norman, Okla.

“He’s a cool kid,” Riley told reporters in Los Angeles earlier this week. “It was good to be able to reconnect with him, it had been a while, reconnect with him at the Pac-12 media day (in late July). He’s a neat kid, he’s got a great family. It’s been cool to see, he bounced around a little bit and he’s obviously found a tremendous home.”

Rising’s recruitment out of Newbury Park (Calif.) High School began picking up steam once he ascended to starting quarterback as a sophomore. Washington State, Cal, Oregon State and USC all offered before Halloween. Michigan, LSU, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Alabama and a host of others came the following winter and spring after Rising threw for 3,213 yards and 40 touchdowns against just one interception, finishing with over 4,000 total yards and 51 total touchdowns.

With those schools among the ones showing early interest, but with more to come if Rising waited it out, he took an unofficial visit to Oklahoma in July 2016. He offered a verbal commitment to the Sooners the next month.

The primary recruiter for Rising? Sooners offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley, who was just 33 at the time and was coming off a 2015 season in which he received the Broyles Award, given annually to the nation’s top assistant coach.

Rising, the No. 22 overall quarterback and No. 11 pro-style QB in the class of 2018 according to 247sports, was committed to Oklahoma for all of eight and a half months. On April 22, 2017, he decommitted from Oklahoma and committed to Texas. This was less than two months before longtime Sooners head coach Bob Stoops retired and Riley was promoted to head coach.

(Ashley Landis | AP) Utah quarterback Cameron Rising (7) throws during the first half of an NCAA college football game against UCLA in Pasadena, Calif., Saturday, Oct. 8, 2022.

“I think at the time, it was a great decision for myself, but things changed,” Rising said during a phone interview last fall when asked if, in hindsight, he thought he committed to Oklahoma too early.

Added Cam’s father, Nicko, last fall: “I don’t know how he would have worked out at Oklahoma, I think he would’ve been fine. Lincoln told us he handpicked Cam over anyone in that recruiting class. That could just be recruiting talk, but that was Trevor Lawrence, that was Matt Corral, there were a bunch of good quarterbacks in that class.”

The lone high school quarterback Oklahoma signed for its 2018 class was Tanner Mordecai, whose 247sports grade was similar to that of Rising. Mordecai never started a game for the Sooners. He backed up Kyler Murray in 2018, then lost camp quarterback competitions to Jalen Hurts and Spencer Rattler before transferring to SMU, where he has started 17 consecutive games.

It is worth noting that in late-November 2016, at which point Rising had been committed for almost four months, Riley was linked to the head-coach opening at Oregon, which had just fired Mark Helfrich after four seasons. Leaving for Oregon never gained much traction, at least not publicly. Riley remained at Oklahoma, but in discussing that situation last fall, Nicko Rising called it “a little bit of a violation of the trust,” while indicating that had Riley left, Cam would not have gone to Oklahoma.

When reached via text message this week, Nicko Rising declined to elaborate on what happened at Oklahoma that facilitated his son’s decommitment.

Ultimately, it is fair to say that things have panned out for both Riley and Rising. Riley is one of the game’s elite young head coaches, having taken Oklahoma to the College Football Playoff three times, with a fourth trip possible in his first season with USC.

Rising wound up at Texas as a freshman in 2018, then transferred to Utah, where a detour-filled road led him to last season’s legacy-defining run to the Rose Bowl.

“It seems like he’s really been a great fit there for the team and what they’ve done offensively,” Riley said. “He’s run it very well and then you can see this year just his evolution, right? He’s more experienced, they’re doing more things I think through him, which is no surprise. Running the ball well, throwing it well. That’s why I recruited him coming out, I thought he was a really good player, and he’s been a really good player. Obviously not on the same side as him this week, but I’m excited for his career and how it’s gone and how it’ll go after this.”