Is Cam Rising playing vs. Cal? Utes know but aren’t saying.

With the senior’s recovery from a significant knee injury ongoing, Utah’s coaches are committed now both to establishing their quarterback availability earlier in the week, and to devoting practice snaps only to those who will be available on game days.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes quarterback Cam Rising wraps up a practice on Monday Aug. 28, 2023, ahead of their season opener against Florida this week.

Kyle Whittingham said during the Utes’ bye week that he wanted to start getting clarity on quarterback Cam Rising’s game-day availability earlier in the week than has been the case, both for the purpose of devoting practice reps elsewhere if needed, and to better tailor a gameplan around whoever the starter will be.

During his weekly media availability Monday at the Spence and Cleone Eccles Football Center, the Utah football head coach said he indeed already knows Rising’s status for Saturday’s game vs. Cal.

And no, he’s not sharing it with outsiders.

“If somebody can give me one reason why it would help us win more [by announcing it], then I’ll tell you everything,” Whittingham said, “but I can’t think of one thing.”

Rising’s availability this season has been shrouded in mystery and confusion and obfuscation, with Whittingham initially suggesting the QB could be a game-time decision for the season opener vs. Florida, then adding the next week that Rising would soon be cleared to participate fully in practice. After the Baylor game, the coach said the team would “hopefully” be getting Rising back for the coming matchup vs. Weber State.

With each successive week of the will-he-or-won’t-he conundrum culminating in a won’t, fans already anxious about the Utes’ offensive struggles have grown increasingly agitated about the holdup, to the point that Rising sought to quell the noise by publicly revealing some details in a radio interview with ESPN 700 this past Thursday.

In the segment, Rising disclosed that he wasn’t merely working his way back from a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), as had been reported, but also was recovering from repairs to his meniscus, medial collateral ligament (MCL), and medial patellofemoral ligament (MPFL).

“I’m doing everything I possibly can to make sure that I’m improving. [But] at some point, your body has to heal the way it has to heal,” Rising said. “It’s unfortunate, and not exactly the way I expected the season to go, and that’s just the cards I’ve been dealt.”

Rising’s availability — or not — will have a trickle-down effect on a group of quarterbacks who have struggled with performance and efficiency through five games.

If Rising is good to go, the Utes’ QB depth chart is straightforward — he will start, and Nate Johnson will be the backup. Failing that, Johnson will start, but the situation behind him is murky.

Bryson Barnes has been the backup since the team elevated Johnson at the end of the Baylor game; he briefly replaced Johnson in the loss to Oregon State before taking a big hit that not only knocked him out of the game, but necessitated hospitalization.

“We’re still trying to figure out the Bryson situation, as well,” said Whittingham. “So that’s two unknowns at this point.”

If Rising remains inactive and Barnes is on the shelf, the Utes suddenly become one play away from either Brandon Rose or Luke Bottari playing quarterback.

Rose initially had been in contention for playing time early in fall camp when it was uncertain if Rising would be ready or not, but an injury sustained during one of the team’s scrimmages has kept him sidelined to this point.

Whittingham would like to be able to sit him out the entire season at this point with the hope of him being granted a medical redshirt, but acknowledged that plan is potentially complicated by Rising’s and Barnes’ status.

“Brandon’s available. But like I said last week, he’s missed six, seven weeks of ball — that’s a big chunk of time to miss and try to come back in and get caught up,” said Whittingham.

One thing the Utes do have within their control is structuring practice differently based on knowing early who’s available.

In previous weeks, deciding late in the week whether Rising would play or not meant that he was splitting practice reps with Johnson pretty much 50-50. Given Johnson’s youth and difficulty mastering some of the nuances of the passing game, some have wondered if devoting more snaps to Johnson could accelerate his improvement.

Whittingham initially shot down that idea, saying the only QB of late who hadn’t received sufficient snaps was Barnes, who’s been the nominal backup, but has effectively acted as a third-stringer throughout the week. However, the coach seemed to backtrack on that Monday, noting that if Rising remains sidelined, the team will look for ways to keep him involved while tailoring practice more around the quarterbacks who will be active on game day.

“Yeah, if he’s unable to go, then we would need to invest all the snaps in the guys that are able to go,” said Whittingham. “Now, I say all the snaps — there’s still ways to work Cam into practice without diluting what the other guys are doing. There’s different drills and things that he can participate in if it comes to that, and that’s essentially what we’ve been doing a lot of the weeks prior. So yeah, he will continue to be involved, but if it’s deemed that he can’t play, then that will be scaled obviously way back from what it would be if he’s able to go.”