With quarterback Cam Rising back at the spring game, Utah can finally breathe again — and contend in the Big 12

Rising’s debut goes for 208 yards, two touchdowns and a restored hope in the future.

(Courtesy of Utah Athletics) Quarterback Cam Rising throws during Day 1 of Utah football spring practices on Tuesday, March 12, 2023 at the University of Utah.

Utah wide receivers coach Alvis Whitted had to prepare himself for this one.

The question posed to him was fairly innocuous: “Is it nice to have Cam Rising back under center?”

But Whitted leaned forward in his chair, smirked slightly and gave the group the look — you know, the one you give out of the corner of your eye when only you and another person know something.

“Oh, man,” he started with a chuckle. “Night and day, man. That’s all I can say. It is so refreshing to have him back there.”

Rising’s absence has hung over Utah’s program for the past year. There were dark times in 2023, a season that saw the Utes limp from being a College Football Playoff contender to going 8-5 and losing in the Las Vegas Bowl to Northwestern.

The offense shuffled from Bryson Barnes to Nate Johnson to eventually Luke Bottari at quarterback. Things hit rock bottom when the Utes didn’t even score a touchdown against Oregon, getting blown out 35-6 on national television. The hard part: The score should have been worse.

But Rising is back now. And hope has returned behind the flowing-haired helmet that Utah missed seeing so much.

In his debut in Utah’s spring game, Rising went 15 of 19 for 208 yards and two touchdowns. It equated to a passer rating of 208.6.

Finally, Utah can breathe again.

“It was a little surreal,” Rising, 24, said of coming back from his yearlong knee injury. “... It was a hard year last year. Just to have that [day] was amazing.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes quarterback Cameron Rising (7) takes some snaps during warmups, before PAC-12 football action between the Utah Utes and the UCLA Bruins, at Rice-Eccles Stadium, on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023.

On the football side, none of what Rising did should be taken too seriously. He wore a yellow jersey so he couldn’t get hit. He spent most of his afternoon throwing to wide-open receivers.

At one point, he hit wide receiver Dorian Singer on a 40-yard go-route down the sideline and no defender was within 5 yards of him. It was supposed to be a fourth down and 6. That wouldn’t happen in a Big 12 game.

But the feeling of Rising coming back — and the moments it produced — was tangible.

Early in the day, Rising dropped back on a fourth and 3 and found fellow tight end Brant Kuithe for a first down. Kuithe also missed 2023 with an injury — one of many players to go down for Utah.

The crowd stood up and cheered cathartically. It was like watching a play from 2022 again — back when Utah had a fully healthy roster and was a national contender.

With the fans still clapping, Rising took a shot to Money Parks for a 57-yard touchdown on the next play. There was the offense that went to back-to-back Rose Bowl.

“Exactly what we hoped it would be,” head coach Kyle Whittingham said of Rising’s day. “He was accurate. He moved well in the pocket. Had great pocket presence to him, which he always does. Got through his progressions quick and got the ball out on time. Really couldn’t have asked anything more than what he gave us today.”

Rising didn’t miss any part of spring. He is fully recovered from a knee injury that took months to heal.

A year ago, Rising sat out of spring practice and hoped to return for the opening game. But the timeline kept getting pushed back further and further, until he was shut down for the year at the end of October.

All the knowledge of Utah’s offense went with him. Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig had to distill everything down to nuts and bolts. The passing efficiency went to 104th in the country.

A running joke was that Rising had a doctorate in Ludwig’s offense, something you can’t replace.

“I definitely feel like I got the doctorate,” Rising said. “Six years to prove it.”

It’s why when Rising stepped on the field on the first day of spring, every coach immediately relaxed. They swung by each other’s offices after practice and remarked how calming it was to have Rising at the helm.

There was a recalibration of what 2023 was supposed to be, but was taken away.

“Veteran player and manages the offense,” Whitted said. “And really [he is] managing our guys. Letting them know the expectations for us. … The throws that he makes, the anticipation, just his knowledge of the offense. It shows and he makes some spectacular throws. It is pretty cool to see.”

In the stands for Utah’s spring game, many fans were still wearing Rose Bowl shirts and memorabilia from 2022. When they looked down at the field, they saw the quarterback who took them to that game.

“He is back to his old self,” Whittingham said.

For Utah and its fans, it means the expectations can come back too. Finally.