Who are the five best quarterbacks to ever play at Utah and in what order should they be listed?
One current quarterback prompts the question: Cam Rising. Does he belong in that group and if he does, where should he land?
After the way Rising played in the Utes’ loss to Oregon, and the manner in which some disappointed Utah fans reacted to that performance, you’d think maybe the junior belongs on a much more crowded list of the worst QBs to ever suit up for the Utes.
This, of course, is nonsense.
Rising, along with linebacker Devin Lloyd, is the primary reason Utah was able last season to do what no other Utah team had done since the Utes were invited into the Pac-12 — win the league championship and get to the Rose Bowl. One longtime respected Pac-12 observer had suggested, upon that invitation, that it would take the Utes 25 years before they’d achieve those two things. Turned out, it took them less than half that time. They had come close in previous seasons, but in large measure a quarterback like Rising had been the missing piece.
He was missed no more, having taken over a team that had lost to BYU and San Diego State — he entered that game late — before he was given the wheel proper, thereafter steering and lifting it to new heights. Without him, that would not have happened.
He is among the all-time top five, and is higher than most might think.
Who else belongs there?
It’s a complicated question, given the number of loose factors involved, stuff like era in which they played, coaches for whom they played, coaching philosophy under which they played, quality of teammates around whom they played, stats they compiled, number of wins and losses they ran up or suffered through, length of their career, the heights of a single season measured, the heights to which their team(s) rose figured in, leadership and mental capacity and vision and athleticism demonstrated, clutch plays made, mistakes committed, eye tests passed …
There’s a whole lot there, and more.
… Facts muddled by subjectivity, recency bias versus memories transformed and glamorized to legend through the years, not to mention (we just did) what they did or might do as a pro, and … well, enough excuses have been plowed through here. Ruminate on your own as we get to it.
Warning: I’m not a big stats guy.
Utah’s all-time top five:
(Honorable mentions: Lee Grosscup, Scott Mitchell.)
5. Mike McCoy
McCoy led the Utes to a 10-2 season in 1994, during which he completed 247 of 381 passes for 3,035 yards, 28 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. In his career, overall, he threw for 7,404 yards and 49 TDs.
He had a good arm, not great, and above average physical ability. But he also was a winner, a leader, smart, a football savant. He understood defenses, and was fully aware what his offense was trying to accomplish. Judges of quarterbacks often want to ooh-and-aah about arm talent, but that, especially at the college level, can be overblown. McCoy was great above the shoulders, the most mentally tough of anyone on this list. He had what could be described as a funny throwing motion, and that mattered little, considering he did pretty much whatever it took to win a game. It wasn’t always pretty, he took some big shots while throwing the ball, but his willingness to do that and deliver it was just one of his charms.
4. Tyler Huntley
Huntley’s raw talent was apparent from the beginning. What an arm. He had a number of challenges to overcome, though. One was turnover at the offensive coordinator position, which is difficult for any young quarterback and some veterans, as well. He had to master more than one offense and it got confusing for him at times. There was also a tendency that is hard to explain. It seemed as though Huntley had varying voices in his head, some from his coaches, some from who knows where.
He wanted to listen to his coaches, not turn the ball over. But he also wanted to be a pro one day, wanted to prove that he had what it took to make it to the NFL.
That caused him to run when he should have passed and to pass when he should have run. Certainly, he could do both. But that stirred bouts of inconsistency, made him unreliable when he needed to be the opposite. It seems counterintuitive, but if he initially had been more instinctual, that would have helped his cause.
What sounds like criticism here is actually a long way of getting around to a compliment.
It wasn’t as much a mental thing as it was a maturity thing. And by the time he was a senior, that maturity arrived. His last season, the Utes finished 11-3, as he passed for 3,092 yards and ran for 290, 19 touchdowns, four picks. Career passing yards: 7,351. He just needed a flow to his game, and he found it. That’s been evidenced as an NFL quarterback. Dude can flat out spin it, can let it rip, but he came to understand the game as a whole and the relationship of his talents applied in it, to it.
3. Brian Johnson
Some might put Johnson higher, on account of, at least in part, his contributions to the second-best team Utah has ever put on the field, the undefeated outfit that went to the Sugar Bowl and beat Alabama. Valid reasoning.
Johnson transformed himself from a young quarterback who relied on his physical abilities and athleticism to a cerebral leader who, after injuries, discerned how to manage a game and more importantly, how to win games.
By way of the power of his mind, it can be argued that he got more out of himself and out of his teammates than any of the others. He reformed himself, becoming an accurate, efficient passer. especially from 15 yards in. Johnson was aware enough to get the ball to the playmakers around him and let them go. He was a rare combination of a backyard QB who was also a football academic … a great teammate, a leader. It is commonly said — likely because of the way he performed in the aforementioned Sugar Bowl — that Utah’s coaches should have simply let Johnson call the plays. That’s an overstatement, but not much of one.
His 2008 stats: 268 of 394 for 2,972 yards, 27 touchdowns, nine picks, and a 13-0 record. Career numbers: 673 of 1,017 for 7,853 yards, 57 touchdowns, 27 picks.
2. Cam Rising
Too high, you think? Didn’t play well or long enough at Utah?
Not quite sure how to articulate this, but here goes. … Rising is an authentic quarterback, a guy who plays with his arm, feet, mind and heart. In his case, it’s a good combination.
And Kyle Whittingham knows this. That’s why he trusts Rising the way he does, gives him slack in the line that so many of Whittingham’s other QBs were not allowed. That’s why he doesn’t kick field goals on fourth down when Rising is on the field. He’s almost certain his quarterback will make the right play, either with his arm or his feet.
Whittingham’s no idiot.
Rising is super-steady in the pocket, knows when to pull it down and run, when to let it fly. And typically, he’s on-target. The kid overcame a lot at Utah after transferring from Texas and not initially winning the starting job. That’s notable, but once he got healthy, his talents took over, as did his moxie, his leadership, his poise. He doesn’t have the world’s greatest arm, but he has everything else.
I had a long discussion once with Mike Leach about what makes a stellar college quarterback and everything he said described Rising — leadership, vision, reading defenses, ability to get the ball to the right place at the right time for the right reason, and more. Arm strength was about eighth on his list.
Another thing about Rising. He loves football and anyone paying attention can see that.
Has anybody else noticed that in recent games, he’s not delivered the ball as crisply as normal? Examples include the short fourth-down pass attempt to Dalton Kincaid that fell at the tight end’s feet against Oregon, a critical miss by Rising at a critical moment. There have been others, too.
Here’s the thing, though. If Rising is not completely right physically, he’s not the type of quarterback prone to run off at the mouth about it. He’ll gut it up and play on without crying. That’s part of what makes him great. And great, he is. As mentioned, last season, perhaps the most profound bounce-back season in the history of Utah football, doesn’t happen without Rising. Last season’s team was a reflection of him. He made it happen.
2021 stats: 204 of 320 for 2,493 yards, 20 touchdowns, five picks. 378 rushing yards. Career numbers: 4,933 yards, 39 TDs, 13 picks, 12 rushing scores.
1. Alex Smith
I know, no big surprise here. The quarterback of the best Ute team ever is the best quarterback at the school ever. He threw 32 TDs and four interceptions in an undefeated 2004 season.
There are all kinds of reasons for it, foremost among them Smith’s dynamic combo-pack of physical and mental abilities, placed on a team with Urban Meyer at the head of it, a coach with the wherewithal to make Tim Tebow look like he might be a great NFL quarterback. Such were Meyer’s gifts. And Smith benefited from them.
He was a rare star who approached the game as though he were the fourth-string guy, motivated to study the game in his quiet time and make everything flow when the brightest lights switched on.
He ran the spread-option with aplomb, typically making the right read and punishing defenses with it, with his mind, arm and legs. People forget that Smith ran the ball some 10 to 12 times each game, keeping defenders off balance and guessing with his deceptive speed.
He was the smartest of all the top Utah guys, rarely missing reads, and ask any coach how he feels about that — he’ll take it and happily live with it, every … single … time. That’s why Smith was the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft. And while we’re not judging any of these quarterbacks for what they did or might do in the pros, had he had more consistency among coordinators in the NFL, Smith’s professional career may have been more successful than it was.
The way he fought back from his devastating leg injury late in that career is just a glimpse of the mental toughness that accompanied his erudite attributes and his physical prowess at Utah. If he dropped back to pass and nothing was there, he could use his feet to make plays. He had great aptitude, great attitude and great athleticism.
That measured up to Utah’s greatest quarterback ever. And, on such an arguable topic, I know of nobody who can mount a decent counter debate against it.
Steve Young once said, you don’t choose the quarterback position, the quarterback position chooses you.
Well. Smith had a great mind, exceptional talent, he was a tall passer who could think, move and throw with a quick, compact release. He was a natural leader, a winner, a modest man who filled his football brain and worked his tail off to make himself what he was. He changed Utah football forever.
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