Utah football opens spring practice as QB2 competition takes shape

Plus: Nate Ritchie did not practice Thursday as he works his way back following mission return

(Hunter Dyke | Utah Athletics) Quarterback Nate Johnson participates in the first day of Utah football spring practice in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, March 21, 2023.

Cam Rising is the starting quarterback at the University of Utah. That is not in question, but there is a well-documented caveat as spring practice got going on Tuesday afternoon.

Rising is only the starting quarterback on Aug. 31 when the Utes open against the University of Florida if his surgically-repaired left ACL allows it. Furthermore, Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham told The Salt Lake Tribune last month that for Rising to play against the Gators, he needs to take some reps during fall camp.

For now, Rising is on the shelf. He will take no reps this spring, but he was present Tuesday at practice as something of an on-field quarterbacks coach as Nate Johnson, Brandon Rose, and incumbent QB2 Bryson Barnes will battle to decide, not only who the backup is, but who the most-viable opening-game starter is if Rising is not ready.

“We want to sort things out and try to get a pecking order,” Whittingham said. “Cam’s obviously our No. 1 guy, but he’s not taking the reps in the spring, which leaves a bunch of reps from No. 2-5, and so we’ve got to determine who those five guys are going to be. It’s a complete body of work throughout the whole spring. We got a good start today, but as the reps accumulate, we hope to see some separation and make a determination on who’s two through five once spring ball is over.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Cam Rising in the stands for Utah women's basketball's NCAA tournament game in Salt Lake City on Sunday, March 19, 2023.

As far as Whittingham is concerned, Barnes, who has appeared in 13 career games, attempted 59 passes, and started a game in 2022 in place of an injured Rising, is a known commodity. He reiterated that belief on Thursday in making it clear that Johnson and Rose will get the majority of the reps this spring in an effort to see exactly what he has at his disposal.

Johnson appeared in four games last season as a true freshman, with his debut not coming until Nov. 5 against Arizona. His seven touches included three total touchdowns, but just one pass attempt alone means there are a lot of questions to answer if the former four-star recruit is to end up as Rising’s backup.

Johnson began last season running the scout team, but when he was promoted to QB3 in late September following Ja’Quinden Jackson’s move to running back, Rose took over the scout team. That position is always thought to be advantageous for a young player, because while Johnson was seeing limited live reps throughout the fall, Rose spent his days going against Utah’s first-team defense, which finished second in the Pac-12 and 26th nationally in yards allowed per game.

For what it’s worth, and it needs to be taken with a large grain of salt, during the 20-minute media viewing period at the end of the practice, the best ball thrown was Rose hitting fifth-year junior wideout Devaughn Vele in stride down the left sideline for a touchdown.

“We just have to execute our plays, we have to execute on and off the field,” said Johnson, who is participating in his first spring practice after not arriving on campus until last summer for his freshman year. “It’s day one. If stuff goes wrong, you just have to shake it off and go on to the next thing. I just have to fly around and make plays.”

Whittingham indicated Tuesday that he would like to have the QB2 situation lined up coming out spring practice, which ends with the spring game on April 22, but if recent history is any indication when it comes to quarterback competitions at Utah, the situation is likely to progress into at least the first two weeks of fall camp.

Nate Ritchie’s debut on hold

One of the more intriguing storylines on defense this spring is the return of Nate Ritchie to the secondary, but his spring practice debut will have to wait.

A returned missionary who started all five games at strong safety as a true freshman in 2020, Ritchie was not ready to practice with his teammates on Thursday, but Whittingham hardly sounded concerned.

“It’s been a slow process, it takes a while to get back into shape and get your legs back underneath you,” Whittingham said of Ritchie, who returned to Utah from his two-year LDS mission in late December. “He was not out there today, he wasn’t ready. He’s battling some lingering things that have kind of cropped up during winter conditioning. We hope to get him out there at some point during spring ball, but he’s a proven commodity.”

Whittingham has already indicated a few times since the Rose Bowl, including Tuesday, not to expect a lot of veteran players to see a ton of reps during spring. That group includes Rising and tight end Brant Kuithe, both of whom are rehabbing, Barnes, and now potentially Ritchie.

How much Ritchie sees the field during spring will continue to hold intrigue, partially thanks to the fact that the safety position has come under a microscope after Clayton Isbell, the potential opening-day starter at free safety, opted to hit the NCAA Transfer Portal last week.

Ritchie, for what it’s worth, played strong safety in 2020, the same position manned now by Cole Bishop, who earned All-Pac-12 honorable mention in 2022 as a true sophomore.