Utah Utes mailbag: How healthy is Cam Rising ahead of the Pac-12 championship game?

Plus: The timing of Kyle Whittingham’s eventual retirement, does Craig Smith need to beat BYU, and more.

Cam Rising was a force of nature when he threw for a career-high 415 yards on 29-for-43 passing, while accounting for five total touchdowns in a 43-42 victory over USC in October.

That win and that effort have taken a toll on the fifth-year junior, and I’m not sure that’s really up for debate anymore.

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

Do you have a question for Utes beat reporter Josh Newman? Send it to him via a tweet, direct message him on Twitter, email him at jnewman@sltrib.com, or leave it in the comments section at the end of this article and he will answer them in his weekly mailbag.

Q: “How healthy do you think Rising is? Getting near 100% healthy? I think whatever happens he lays it all on the field Friday night. And do you think there may be some regret from Tavion for not seeing how this weekend played out before making an announcement?” — @UtesNRoses

A: How close Rising is to 100% healthy is simply a matter of conjecture. I have not seen one second of practice, Kyle Whittingham has said Rising is healthy enough to be out there playing, and Rising himself has given three-word answers for weeks any time his injured left knee comes up.

My personal opinion? Rising is not 100% healthy. I base that on multiple things. He has played the last four games with either a bulky knee brace or a compression sleeve on that left knee. The last time we saw Rising was Monday after practice, at which time he had the knee brace on.

Furthermore, we are seeing fewer designed keepers called for Rising, and less running from him in general. Whittingham said a couple of times during the month of October that he is comfortable having Rising run between 8-12 times per game, whether that be by design or on a scramble. Rising has been credited with 13 rushes across the last four games, in which Utah is 3-1.

The one loss, though, was against Oregon, where even the most subjective Utah fan would agree that Rising struggled, with some of that being accuracy and decision-making.

Whatever I or anyone else thinks of Rising, he will be under center Friday night against USC with a trip to the Rose Bowl at stake. How healthy or effective will he be? That is a different matter altogether.

As for Tavion Thomas, uh, no, I do not think there may be some regret for not seeing how this weekend played out before making an announcement. I do not think that even a little bit.

Q: “Is Ja’Quinden Jackson an ideal plug-and-play replacement for Tavion Thomas’ role?” — @yoburnersburner

A: No, Ja’Quinden Jackson is not an ideal plug-and-play replacement for Tavion Thomas.

Thomas has more experience at running back, a bigger resume at this level, more size, better vision, is more adept at pass protection, and most any other metric you want to come up with.

Here’s the thing, though. Jackson wants to be here and Thomas doesn’t. Jackson wants to be coached, Thomas never managed to come back around to being a full-time, willing member of the operation.

Furthermore, Jackson is more versatile than Thomas, which he showed at Colorado by scoring his three touchdowns in three different ways. One out of the Wildcat, one on a 10-yard push up the middle, and the third on a 66-yard run that featured a nifty jump cut before he reached the second level.

There is nothing in stone yet from Whittingham, but I think the majority opinion from those paying close attention is that Jackson’s future here is not at quarterback, but at running back, and a full offseason of work at his new position could yield some big results.

Two questions: Who gets the first snap at running back in 2023? Why can’t it be Jackson?

Q: “If Whitt wins the Pac-12 and wants to retire, does he announce the Rose Bowl as his last game ahead of time or wait until the season is over? This is more a question about his personality and leadership style than a prediction it will happen, but I think it is a non-zero possibility.” — @leftcoastute

A: Interesting angle to a question that, given Whittingham’s age and point of his career, invariably comes up at this time of the season. I agree, there is a non-zero possibility this season will be Whittingham’s last.

There is nothing imminent that I am currently aware of, but for the purposes of this exercise, let’s pretend that Whittingham has decided to call it a career. When he and/or Utah decide to announce it isn’t a slam dunk.

I don’t know Whittingham as well as other members of the local media, but he does not strike me as wanting the situation to be a circus. If the news is announced or if it leaks during December, the runup to the Rose Bowl will become very secondary. Attention will turn to Whittingham’s retirement and everything that comes with it. In this day and age, Whittingham and the athletic department can only insulate that type of thing so much.

The flip side of that is, if Whittingham has made a decision, he may want to get it out there sooner than later for two reasons. Under new NCAA rules, the new transfer portal window opens for 45 days beginning Dec. 5. Additionally, the early signing period for high school recruits begins on Dec. 21.

If Utah athletic director Mark Harlan is set to name a successor in conjunction with Whittingham’s retirement announcement, maybe Whittingham would want to get out of the way so to speak in a timely manner, potentially before Dec. 21.

Again, nothing is imminent, but yeah, there is always a non-zero chance.

Q: “Would you support a temporary rule that if the game is tied after two overtimes, Lincoln Riley and Kyle Whittingham go to a full cage match? Winner gets the Pac-12 championship?” — @BrownbearSLC

A: Honest question. Why are we making this a temporary rule and not standard practice?

Whittingham looks a little more in shape than Riley, a little more physically fit, so if we’re debating who actually wins the cage match, I’m probably taking Whittingham despite him being more than 20 years older.

Another honest question: Does Whittingham win a Royal Rumble-esque fight against the rest of the Pac-12 head coaches? I’m not so sure. He probably out-toughs that field, but again, age is a factor, so if he’s in the ring early, I’m probably betting against him.

Since I’ve taken us this far, I’ll take Oregon State head coach Jonathan Smith in the Royal Rumble. You can’t spend as much time in Corvallis as Smith has and not have some scrap in you.

Q: “Who are the Big Ten (Ohio State) fans and SEC (Alabama) fans cheering for? I hear Buckeyes and Crimson Tide fans are cheering for Utah, because it favors them.” — @samwinderart

A: An easy one.

The fifth-ranked Buckeyes and sixth-ranked Crimson Tide are both rooting for Utah to beat USC. If the Trojans lose the Pac-12 championship game, 11-1 Ohio State likely gets bumped to No. 4 and into the College Football Playoff despite not winning the Big Ten East, let alone the Big Ten championship game.

I do find it ironic, Ohio State fans rooting for Utah after last season’s Rose Bowl.

Q: “Utah hoops vs. BYU. How big of a game is it for Craig Smith?” — @benwilkinson

A: I have been a loud proponent of Utah and BYU continuing to play each other in football and basketball, but I don’t feel the need to make a mountain out of a molehill here.

Neither the Utes, nor the Cougars have a signature win worth talking about this season. That can change if Utah wants to beat Arizona on Thursday at the Huntsman Center, or if BYU wants to beat Creighton on Dec. 10 in a one-off contest in Las Vegas.

Short of either of those things happening, the Utes’ trip to Provo on Dec. 21 will take place between two teams trying to figure it out, both of whom are looking quite average as non-conference slates begin to wind down.

It would appease a lot of people if Smith, who is without a signature win in his short time at Utah, found a way to beat BYU, but it doesn’t feel like the be-all, end-all if he doesn’t.

Yeah, keep playing this series. It’s good for college basketball to have rivalries, it’s good for the state when its two-highest profile programs play each other. From the Utah perspective, there are bigger fish to fry.

Q: “What’s better, noon kickoffs or Black Friday leftover food?” - @nstod

A: Two of my favorite things.

I love a good noon kickoff, if not 11:30 a.m., which sometimes happens out there. Wake up, a little coffee, catch most of College GameDay, cover a game, be done at a nice, early, reasonable hour. Delightful.

Thanksgiving leftovers, though, that’s really the only reason to even bother with Thanksgiving, not to mention only once a year. Last weekend, I hopped a morning flight to Denver on Friday, and you better believe I had packed a leftover turkey sandwich with stuffing, mashed potatoes and a touch of gravy on fresh sourdough from Whole Foods. Hit the spot midway through the flight.

Of course, if you can mix these two things, it’s more awesome. If you recall, last year we had Thanksgiving, followed by Utah-Colorado on Friday at 2 p.m. That’s not noon, but 2 p.m. was fine, especially with the leftovers sandwich for lunch that day.

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