5 questions Utah football needs to answer before Florida comes to Rice-Eccles

Quarterback, the secondary and wide receivers top the list of questions for the Utes as fall camp begins July 31.

(AP; The Salt Lake Tribune) From left, wide receiver Devaughn Vele, quarterback Cameron Rising and tight end Brant Kuithe all decided to return Utah for the 2023 college football season. But the Utes still have some key questions to address if they hope to win another Pac-12 title.

After back-to-back Pac-12 championships and two Rose Bowl appearances, Kyle Whittingham and the Utes know what it takes to get the job done.

So while much of the conference’s attention remains fixed on Colorado’s exit and the future of the Pac-12 or last year’s Heisman winner in Los Angeles, Whittingham and Co. will quietly get back to work this week.

As fall camp begins, here are five pressing football questions Utah must answer before its Aug. 31 home opener against Florida.

The quarterback question

The talk about Utah’s quarterback situation has been exhaustive this summer. Will Cam Rising be ready for Week 1? If not, who will take control of the offense against Florida?

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes quarterback Cameron Rising (7) as the University of Utah hosts Arizona, NCAA football in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 5, 2022.

Just about every scenario has been run through countless times. Yet, it remains the biggest question for Utah heading into fall camp.

It’s also a storyline that got more interesting two weeks ago when Whittingham publicly questioned whether Rising would be ready. It was the first time he acknowledged that maybe his quarterback would be cutting an ACL recovery close.

“When you look at the timetable, when he is going to be cleared, or projected to be cleared, is coming right down to the wire,” Whittingham said at Pac-12 media day.

Fall camp will provide a definitive answer on Rising’s health. If he is a full participant by the second half of August, he will likely start. If not, Utah will have to look elsewhere. Remember, if Rising starts Week 1, he will be less than nine months post-surgery from an ACL tear (the average time it takes to return from that injury).

Naturally then, a big part of the rest of camp will be finding Rising’s backup. Brandon Rose separated in spring practices and appears to be the probable starter if Rising sits.

But Nate Johnson will compete with Rose for reps. Johnson was once seen as the likely backup to Rising heading into spring. But Johnson dealt with injuries and accuracy issues that allowed Rose to move ahead in the pecking order. The backup job isn’t lost for Johnson, but he will need to make up ground if he wants to play.

Bryson Barnes, a Utah folk hero of sorts, also remains in the quarterback room — and Whittingham has relied on him in the past in big games.

The jigsaw puzzle in the secondary

Utah’s defense is rarely the issue for Whittingham. This year won’t be different. Over half the starters return on that side of the ball, anchored by a deep defensive line.

But if there is a weakness, you could look at the secondary for the Utes. All-American Clark Phillips III is on an NFL roster now. Meanwhile, safety Clayton Isbell left the program and opened up a starting spot.

(Lucas Peltier | AP) Utah safety Cole Bishop smiles during the NCAA college football Pac-12 media day Friday, July 21, 2023, in Las Vegas.

Defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley will have options back there, but it will be a puzzle to see how he fills out his two safety spots.

He could have Sione Vaki take over for Isbell at free safety and have him play alongside Utah’s leading tackler Cole Bishop. Bishop appears to be a lock to start at strong safety.

But Scalley could also pair Bishop with Nate Ritchie. Ritchie was a starter at safety in 2020, but spent the last two years on a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints mission. He has the experience, but is he fully ready to go?

The most likely option still appears to be a duo of Vaki and Bishop. It needs to be nailed down in camp.

Is the receivers’ room ready to take the next step?

It feels like the same question every year for this offense: will the wide receivers step up?

Utah keeps waiting for it to happen. The Utes know they need more production out of the unit if the offense is going to take another leap.

This year, the answer will likely hinge on a mix of old and new. Devaughn Vele is back for a fifth year after flirting with leaving last year. He started 12 games in 2022 and was the team’s second-leading receiver with 695 yards and five touchdowns.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Cameron Rising (7) and Devaughn Vele (17) celebrate a game-winning two-point conversion against USC, Oct. 15, 2022. Rising and Vele, along with tight end Brant Kuithe, announced they are returning for another season at Utah.

Utah brought in wide receiver Mycah Pittman from Florida State to help solve the problem. Internally, Money Parks also figures to take on a bigger role.

Utah will still have tight end Brant Kuithe to help with the pass-catching duties. But without tight end Dalton Kincaid anchoring the receiving game, Utah will need more from its receivers this year.

What to do without Clark Phillips III?

If Kincaid was Utah’s best player last year, Phillips had a strong argument to be considered Utah’s best defensive player.

He was an All-American and had six interceptions last year. So what is the plan at corner without Phillips?

Utah has Zemaiah Vaughn, JT Broughton and Faybian Marks. They are seasoned options. True freshman Smith Snowden, depending on where he is used, could be a factor here, too. Snowden didn’t go through spring practice, but it is believed he will be an immediate impact player.

But the name everyone will be looking at is Ole Miss transfer Miles Battle. He is a fifth-year player who has played in almost 50 games in the SEC. The Utes need all the depth they can get at that spot playing 11 Power Five teams, but Battle is the headliner.

Health of Kuithe

Everyone wants to talk about Rising’s ACL, but Kuithe is also coming off a season-ending ACL tear. Kuithe had a lot more time to recover than Rising, tearing his against Arizona State last September. There is no doubt he will be ready for Week 1.

But Kuithe still hasn’t played a game since the injury and will be relied on out of the gate to be a big factor.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) University of Utah tight end Brant Kuithe second from right, shares a laugh with quarterback Cam Rising at Utah Pro Day Thursday at the Eccles Field House, March 23, 2023.

With a quarterback room in flux, Utah needs Kuithe to kick off the rust fast. We will see how quickly he can get back to his old form.