Cam Rising could return this week, but Utah football loses a key piece for the season

While the Utes’ would-be starting quarterback could “hopefully” be cleared to face Weber State, the team lost a valuable weapon due to running back Micah Bernard’s season-ending injury.

(Jerry Larson | AP) Utah quarterback Cameron Rising (7) reacts as they defeated Baylor 20-13 in an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 9, 2023, in Waco, Texas.

Waco, Texas • Saturday’s postgame news conference at Baylor’s McLane Stadium was one of those good news/bad news situations for the Utah football team.

On the positive front, a certain injured starting quarterback could be returning for the Utes’ next game, against Weber State.

“We’re gonna get Cam back at some point — hopefully this week,” head coach Kyle Whittingham said of Cam Rising, who’s been working his way back from a torn ACL.

A few minutes later came the downer, though.

“Yeah, Micah Bernard is out for the season,” Whittingham said of the junior running back who reportedly had an off-the-field accident a few days ago. “… We will not have him the rest of the way.”

Two games into the 2023 schedule, Utah’s offense needs all the help it can get.

After opening the season with a thrilling 70-yard connection between Bryson Barnes and Money Parks against Florida, the Utes’ attack mostly fizzled thereafter vs. the Gators, never really getting going either through the air or on the ground.

Meanwhile, in their matchup against Baylor, the run game was on track but the passing was so anemic — at least until Nate Johnson came in for good with 10:01 remaining — that the Utes could muster only 20 total points against an opponent that yielded 41 the previous week to Sun Belt program Texas State.

Through two weeks, the Utes are averaging 22.0 points, 323.5 total yards, and 159 passing yards per game.

Johnson has had some electric moments, albeit mostly with his legs.

Still, he did complete 6 of 7 passes Saturday for 82 yards, which is not nothing.

“Baylor, credit to them, they’ve got a really great defense,” he said. “We weren’t really bringing the juice how we wanted to, and came back after halftime and we just stepped it up, really, that whole second half. We kept straining and kept straining, we trusted the plays, we trusted the game plan, and came out with a win.”

While Whittingham noted that Johnson “took a big step forward” and will “be a better quarterback because of this performance,” he also was blunt about the overall job that Johnson and Barnes have done filling in for Rising.

“These two guys have held down the fort — nothing spectacular,” he said.

Needless to say, the coach was enthusiastic when asked about what he saw out of Rising in the past week of practices.

“Cam is doing really well. It’s just a matter of having complete confidence in the knee, and the medical staff saying, ‘Yeah, we’re gonna turn him loose,’” Whittingham said. “He is not limited in practice at all, he can do everything. But you’ve still got to gain that confidence psychologically. And as soon as they give us the green light — which may be this week, we hope it’s this week.”

Then again, he conceded he’s gotten his hopes up before.

“I’ve been crossing my fingers for a couple of weeks now,” Whittingham said with a laugh.

If Rising still isn’t ready to go against Weber State, it will be interesting to see if Utah’s coaching staff leans more heavily upon Johnson at quarterback.

They’ll certainly be leaning heavily upon the running backs, despite missing some key talent there.

Bernard ran for 523 yards (6.0 per carry) in 2021, and added 533 (5.0 per) last season. This year, in Week 1, he was one of the few runners to be consistently effective vs. Florida, as he picked up 45 yards on seven carries (6.4 per).

Now, though, he’s no longer an option. And at this point, neither is Chris Curry, who gained 81 yards on 12 attempts last season (6.8) before going out with a season-ending injury that he has yet to return from.

“Chris Curry is still not quite up to speed, [not] where he needs to be, but he’s improving every week,” said Whittingham. “And hopefully we can get him in the mix sooner rather than later, because he’s another quality running back that can help us win.”

Against the Bears, that definition fit Ja’Quinden Jackson, who bounced back from a limited and ineffectual performance vs. Florida (he was subsequently revealed to be banged-up) to post 129 yards.

Whittingham was mildly critical of the physicality displayed by his offensive linemen in the run game in Week 1. But if what they did in Week 2 is any indication of what they’re consistently capable of going forward … well, maybe there’s no need to rush Rising back.

“I have to give a huge shout-out to the O-line,” said Jackson. “Because they are the reason why we won the game, why we was running the ball like we was.”