Luke Bottari’s start for Utah was just one final twist in this season’s bizarre quarterback saga

After emerging from spring ball fifth on the depth chart, the senior transferred to Cal in search of more playing time — only to return to Utah a few months later, where fate would finally provide him a chance.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes quarterback Luke Bottari (15) runs the ball for a touchdown as Colorado Buffaloes cornerback Travis Hunter (12) defends at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023.

Luke Bottari taking the reins of the Utah offense for the regular-season finale against Colorado was fitting in a way.

In a season of extreme quarterback weirdness for the program, Bottari — who wasn’t even with the Utes when fall camp started — getting a start was something of a perfect microcosm.

Cam Rising was said to be a game-time decision for the opener vs. Florida … and never played a snap all season, ultimately being ruled out for the year at the USC game.

Brandon Rose, perhaps the early favorite to take over for Rising, suffered an injury in a fall camp scrimmage and wound up running the scout team all year.

Walk-on Bryson Barnes and redshirt freshman Nate Johnson traded series and snaps for the first two weeks, against Florida and Baylor, respectively; Barnes was put on scholarship for playing so well vs. the Gators, then was benched for playing so poorly vs. the Bears.

Johnson took over as the full-time QB late in the Baylor game, then started against Weber State, UCLA, and Oregon State, only to get benched against the Beavers for poor play. Then, he had to return and finish out the game after Barnes absorbed a hit that sent him to the hospital.

Following the bye week, Barnes was the starter again against Cal, and remained so for the games vs. USC, Oregon, Arizona State, Washington, and Arizona — but apparently absorbed quite a beating in the loss to the Wildcats.

“We got back to Salt Lake and had the Sunday evaluations on health, [and] because Bryson was really beat up, and the things that he had and does have going on, we didn’t feel [he was] going to be ready in time, and that proved to be the case,” said head coach Kyle Whittingham.

So, surely back to Johnson, then, right?

“Nate Johnson has decided to transfer, and so he was not available,” Whittingham explained. “… We found out Nate was going to make the move, I believe it was Monday. And we didn’t know, but we had a good idea that Luke would be the guy right after.”

And so, improbably, Bottari was getting first-team reps and wound up making the start.

Not bad for a guy who was part of Cal’s program into August.

A former juco star at the College of San Mateo, he joined the Utes for the 2022 season, but did not play. He was with the program through spring ball, but after gaining no traction in his bid to surpass any of Rising, Rose, Johnson or Barnes, he opted to go somewhere with a less-settled QB situation in hopes of getting on the field.

A few months later, though, he’d apparently had second thoughts about his decision.

“[He] thought that we had a pretty solidified quarterback room, and thought maybe he’d have a little better opportunity to get some playing time possibly at Cal,” said Whittingham. “Spent — I can’t remember exactly how long it was — the first week or two of fall camp at Cal in their in their fall preparations, fall camp prep, and then decided that, hey, maybe you want to come back to Utah. And so we welcomed him back because he’s a great kid, a great teammate. And it turns out we got to him, we needed him. So it was good for us in that respect.”

Bottari noted himself in the aftermath of the victory over Colorado what a weird situation it was.

“[Being a] graduate makes the transfer rules a little less strict, I believe. So I was able to hit the portal in August during fall camp and was able to have the opportunity to come back to Utah, which I’m extremely blessed for. Because now with the portal windows, it’s unprecedented for that to happen,” he said. “So I was just thankful that they welcomed me back with open arms, and yeah, I was super juiced to get back.”

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes quarterback Luke Bottari (15) looks to pass against the Colorado Buffaloes at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023.

He added that no guarantees were made about what his role would be, but that didn’t matter.

He just felt like he was in the right place again.

“You know, I love this program with all my heart, and that’s obviously why I came back,” Bottari said. “But, yeah, I was ready for anything when I came back — to play, to not play, whatever they asked of me, I was ready to do.”

The Utes didn’t have him throw a ton — he went just 6 of 10 for 61 passing yards — but he acquitted himself well in his chance to play.

He also got to make a couple of personal highlights, rushing for a pair of touchdowns.

“I think it took a couple seconds to hit me, for sure,” Bottari said of getting into the end zone for the first time. “But just super juiced to celebrate with my guys.”

As for what would have happened if he had gotten injured and needed to come out of the game, what with none of Rising, Johnson or Barnes being available …

“If Luke was not available, it would have been [quarterback-turned-running back] Ja’Quinden Jackson,” Whittingham said. “Rose had a small package that he was ready to execute — just a handful of plays — as was Ja’Quinden, so depending on the situation, they both probably would have played if we would have needed to run the clock out or whatever. JJ got the wildcat stuff down, [and] we had a watered-down version for Brandon — very watered down, because again, he just hadn’t been in [offensive gameplan] meetings the entire season.”

Bottari, however, made it through unscathed, playing from start to finish.

Now the question becomes whether he’ll get a chance to do anything else.

The Utes do have a bowl game remaining — they’ll find out where they’re headed when the selections are announced this Sunday.

It sounds like his chances of starting might be slim.

“Well, hopefully we get Bryson back. We don’t believe it’s long-term. I guess it remains to be seen, but he is making progress,” said Whittingham. “And with the timing of the bowl — of course, a later bowl game gives him more time to prep, but I think, regardless, even if it’s one of the early ones that he would be ready to go. That’s what we’re hoping.”

If Barnes isn’t ready, though, Bottari will be.