Utah Utes mailbag: What might Cam Rising’s availability be for the 2023 season?

Plus: Nate Johnson’s future, will Kyle Whittingham return in 2023, and a check in on the Runnin’ Utes.

(Marcio Jose Sanchez | AP) Utah quarterback Cameron Rising (7) is helped off the field during the second half in the Rose Bowl NCAA college football game against Penn State Monday, Jan. 2, 2023, in Pasadena, Calif.

A bunch of significant news came tumbling out of the Eccles Football Center on Monday morning, none more significant than University of Utah quarterback Cam Rising intending to come back in 2023 for a sixth and final season.

Rising’s impending return brings with it a host of offseason storylines, not to mention questions, almost all of them connected to the fact he left the Rose Bowl midway through the third quarter and didn’t return with what Kyle Whittingham later termed a “leg injury.”

We’re going to start the first Utah Utes mailbag of 2023 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 does Cam’s injury impact his availability next season?” - @JacobAJensen

A: Good question, really the only question that matters at the moment as the offseason begins to unfold. We’ll start with what Whittingham said after the Rose Bowl. The Utah head coach has not spoken publicly since.

“The injury to Cam is a leg injury and it doesn’t look good, I can tell you that. We’ll wait for confirmation from the medical people at a later date, either tonight or tomorrow. It looks like it could be something that takes a while to recover from. That’s not positive right now.”

Utah has not released any information on Rising’s status, but the belief is that this is a knee injury with a months-long timetable for a return. For what it’s worth, it’s the same knee that Rising played hurt on for a lot of the season, while missing the Washington State game in late October.

With the information available through back channels, I wouldn’t expect Rising to be ready for spring practice. So the question then would become whether or not he will be ready for the start of camp in early August, followed by the Sept. 2 opener vs. Florida.

Being ready for camp in eight months is important, but being ready for the opener in nine months is more important if you believe Utah can do something significant next fall. I do expect Rising to be ready and able to play in 2023, it’s just a matter of when and to what extent.

Rehab is obviously going to play a large role in dictating when Rising will be available. Rising has unfortunately been down this road before with the right shoulder injury that cost him the bulk of 2020, but if you’re looking for optimism, give this piece from Oct. 2021 a read. It leads off with how Rising attacked the rehab process the right way.

Q: “If you had to rank the QB room as it stands now, how would you rank it? Zero being DEFCON levels of trouble and 10 meaning we could win double-digit games next year.” - @ShortStackUte

A: If that’s the scale I am forced to work with, my instinct with Rising is probably approaching a 10.

If Rising is ready for the regular season, the ceiling is double-digit wins, although the schedule he would face off the injury is quite gnarly. Florida at Rice-Eccles Stadium, Baylor in Waco, Pac-12 trips to USC, Washington, and Oregon State. Not easy, but a veteran quarterback with veteran pieces and what projects as an elite defense makes the schedule slightly less daunting, but I say that without having seen a schedule with dates yet.

If Rising’s recovery bleeds into September, I don’t think your remaining options lead you into DEFCON levels of trouble, but I do have questions. Is there a transfer portal commit coming at some point as an insurance policy? Regardless, how ready is Nate Johnson to take the reins? Before answering that, are we assuming Johnson beats out Bryson Barnes for the job? Personally, I am assuming that in this case, but all we’ve seen from Johnson are a few snaps, although some of those snaps were electric.

I have wondered quietly for months whether or not Whittingham and Ludwig believe Johnson is the future starter. What I always come back to is, maybe, but really, how can they be sure right now? Johnson has had a specific play package, but it stands to reason he has minimal, if any, first-team reps in practice at quarterback, so who’s to say what he would like if he were thrust into that position vs. Florida?

Q: “Do you think Cam’s announcement sends Nate Johnson to the transfer portal looking for a shot to play next year? Assuming Cam’s injury isn’t severe enough to keep him out of the start of the year.” - @dudepals1

A: I understand this sentiment, and nothing really surprises me anymore, but Johnson opting for the portal would strike me as odd.

If Rising is ready for the opener, Johnson is still going to have a role and will be a threat to see the field every week. His role in 2022 as a true freshman was by no means extensive, but he had one. He was on the field, playing, making an impact. The trust in Johnson from Whittingham and Ludwig is only going to grow as he continues working within the system.

For the sake of arguing, let’s say Rising is ready for the opener, remains healthy, and is the unquestioned starter for 12-15 games. Let’s also say Johnson wrestles QB2 from Bryson Barnes, while also continuing with the Wildcat-type stuff here and there.

Under that scenario, with Whittingham going portal-diving for a QB always an option, Johnson goes into spring practice in 2024 with two years under his belt and potentially the inside track to start that fall’s opener.

If you’re Johnson, you stay the course. Leaving now, or in the spring, in the wake of Rising’s return would be shortsighted in my opinion.

Q: “What percentage chance would you put at Nate Johnson being the starter against Florida for Week 1, same for Barnes and someone else altogether?” - @bradonliddle

A: I would like to answer this question after spring practice, once we see how a three-way deal between Johnson, Barnes, and Brandon Rose shakes out.

Whittingham is unlikely to officially put a QB2 label on any of those guys coming out of spring, but it’s going to be clear by the end of the Red-White Game where it’s going. Whoever emerges from that is in line to be the backup and could rationally be considered the opening day starter if Rising is not ready.

I think Johnson is going to overtake Barnes at some point and start getting those reps, so to answer your question, without having all the information or insight yet, I’ll put Rising at 50%, Johnson at 20%, and Barnes 10% with the remaining 20% going to the field, which in this case includes Rose, early enrollee freshman true Mack Howard, and a TBD transfer portal commitment.

As you can see, there is still a lot of guesswork 10 days removed from Rising’s injury.

Q: “I know it is too early to look at the 2023-24 Runnin’ Utes, but just for a minute. If finding a way (player?) to replace Branden Carlson’s production at center is job No. 1, what is the second-biggest need for Craig & Crew? Can that need be met by recruiting or transfer?” - @VegasUte

A: For starters, Carlson is in his fourth season, but he has another year of eligibility in 2023-24. Remember, the 2020-21 season was a freebie for everyone because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Carlson has the option to return, but we’re not quite up to worrying about that yet with at least 15 games still to play.

Carlson has been an effective No. 1 option for most of this season, but the absolute primary objective this offseason needs to be to find more scoring, specifically on the perimeter. Utah simply doesn’t have enough of it, a fact that has been glaring when Carlson and Gabe Madsen are both having tough nights (See: BYU, Oregon). Lazar Stefanovic has had plenty of good nights this season, but also enough spotty ones that he is not enough to get you over the hump if Madsen is shooting poorly.

I don’t know that a guy like Utah needs is currently on the roster. There remains heavy optimism that freshman wing Wil Exacte will eventually turn into that, but that’s no guarantee.

Smith’s roster as presently constructed, which is likely bound for the postseason in some form two months from now, has often been an elite defensive outfit. If he can find an 18-per-game player out of the transfer portal, it would be massive, but the problem there is, everyone wants guys like that.

Bottom line, I remain bullish on the men’s basketball team. I don’t think Smith is that far away from something significant happening.

Q: “With the bulk of the offense returning, is it safe to say Kyle Whittingham is a lock to stay for 2023?” - @801Ute

A: I call very few things in college athletics a true lock, but there has been no indication from anyone that is supposed to know these things, either in the weeks leading up to the Rose Bowl or in the days since, that Whittingham intends to retire.

During some in-season Monday press conferences, personally, I thought Whittingham started leaving some easter eggs out there, indicating he might be getting ready to call it a career, but I apparently over-thought that.

Yes, he knows what he has coming back, he knows Utah can be very good again in 2023, so there’s that to consider. I’m told he is perfectly fine health at the age of 63, so that’s another thing, as is the fact that he is making a ton of money.

Don’t discount that as a motivating factor to keep going. I don’t think Whittingham keeps going through the final five years of his current deal, but if he were to do that, he is guaranteed $32 million in base pay. In 2023 alone, Whittingham’s base pay is set at $4.7 million.

If you believe what Whittingham said years ago, that he is unlikely to coach past the age of 65, well, that ticking is starting to get a little louder.

Q: “With Braeden Daniels and Paul Maile gone from the o-line, do you feel this is a position hurting more than the WR position?” - @jniels16

A: The wide receiver position at Utah is hurting, seemingly in perpetuity, but at least some of that has to do with the tight ends being legitimate pass-catching options.

In this particular case, I think the offensive line is in better shape than the wide receivers, mostly because I think there’s depth to overcome Daniels and Maile leaving.

Daniels is a bigger hole to fill, an All-Pac-12 guy with 49 games played, including 43 starts. Will that spot go to Zereoue Williams? Do you slide Falcon Kaumatule over from right tackle? Can Jaren Kump, once viewed as possibly the best tackle on the roster, reemerge as a force?

To replace Maile, maybe Kump is in the mix there, but Whittingham was complimentary of the limited reps redshirt freshman Koli Faaiu, while Johnny Maea could also be an option.

One spot on the field no one should be terribly worried about is the offensive line. There is too much depth across the five spots to be worried about it.

Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.