Cam Rising’s return is just one part of a busy spring for Utah football

A new era at Utah begins with some old faces.

The Utes will open their first Big 12 spring camp with several holdovers from the Pac-12 championship days.

Quarterback Cam Rising is back for a seventh year. Same with tight end Brant Kuithe. Neither has taken a snap in over 15 months, but they hold Utah’s 2024 fate firmly on their shoulders.

Entering a conference where the balance of power is changing — see Texas’ and Oklahoma’s new digs — Utah has a chance to announce itself near the top of the Big 12 hierarchy. But first, there are questions it needs to answer closer to home.

Cam Rising and a new quarterback room

Rising sat out of spring camp a year ago, recovering from a torn ACL. Now, the quarterback should be a full-go for Utah’s 15 spring practices. His progression will be the most important development of the spring.

Utah had a taste of life without Rising a year ago. It went 8-5, shuffled from quarterback to quarterback, and had one of the worst offenses in the Power Five.

Utah scored just 23 points per game (100th in the country) and averaged under 350 yards (92nd). In terms of passing efficiency, Utah ranked 104th.

That needs to improve if the Utes are going to contend for a Big 12 title. It starts with having a proven quarterback — which is why donors are paying top dollar to keep Rising for a seventh year.

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

Behind Rising, there is a relatively empty room. Gone are the days of Bryson Barnes, Nate Johnson and Mack Howard. All of those quarterbacks entered the transfer portal.

Now, Utah will test a young Isaac Wilson in his first college reps. He is fresh off winning a state title at Corner Canyon.

Luke Bottari is still on the roster. He started against Colorado in an emergency situation. Brandon Rose, who might have been a starter a season ago if not for a practice injury, is there, too. But the most intriguing prospect behind Rising is Wilson. It is just a matter of how ready he is to enter the spotlight.

Transfers up to the task?

Last year, Utah’s offseason was dominated by the addition of wide receiver Mycah Pittman and tight end Landon King. The hope was they could revitalize a passing game that faltered at times — particularly with wide receiver production.

The early returns were lackluster.

Pittman ended up playing in just two games. He caught three passes for 20 yards before being shut down for the season. King played in 13 games, but had 120 yards from scrimmage.

Emery Simmons, the Indiana transfer, could have helped, too. But he played in 10 games and had one catch.

Not all transfers hit immediately.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes wide receiver Mycah Pittman (5) is pushed out of bounds as the Utah Utes host the Florida Gators, NCAA football in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023.

Still, Utah went back into the portal this December to try again. The Utes signed USC transfer Dorian Singer. He logged fewer than 300 receiving yards last year but had 1,000 yards at Arizona the year before.

Utah also brought in wide receiver Taeshaun Lyons from Washington. He only spent one season in Seattle and redshirted.

Will both of these players hit for Utah? History says it’s not a guarantee, but spring will be the first step toward finding out.

One other offensive transfer to keep tabs on is UCLA tight end Carsen Ryan. The former American Fork star elected to come home after a 13-catch, 205-yard season. Maybe he can emerge as a pass-catching option for Rising.

A pass rush with a new name

BYU’s John Henry Daley won’t be the biggest name on Utah’s transfer sheet this offseason. The highest-rated transfer is Singer and the best defensive addition is safety Alaka’i Gilman from Stanford.

But Daley can be a talented pass rusher in the right system. He spent one season in Provo before ending up in Salt Lake — just like Logan Fano last year. At 6-foot-4, 253 pounds, he has the exact same build as Fano (6-4, 250). He is the prototypical Big 12 pass rusher and someone the Cougars were high on internally.

Utah might need his services as it replaces Jonah Elliss. He had 12 sacks last year and 16 tackles for a loss.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes defensive end Jonah Elliss (83) and Utah defensive tackle Junior Tafuna (58) celebrate after Ellis’s sack on UCLA Bruins quarterback Dante Moore (3), in the final Bruin drive in the 4th quarter, in PAC-12 football action between the Utah Utes and the UCLA Bruins, at Rice-Eccles Stadium, on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023.

Utah doesn’t need Daley to be a home run immediately. It returns Van Fillinger (3 sacks) and Connor O’Toole (4.5 sacks). But it’s a nice option to have.

Daley wasn’t the only edge rusher defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley added. Kanious Vaughn joins the fold from UTEP. He spent one season in El Paso before making the leap.

Secondary needs a facelift

For all the old faces on offense, the secondary needs a facelift.

Cole Bishop left for the draft. JaTravis Broughton went to TCU. Sione Vaki opted for the NFL. Miles Battle ran out of eligibility.

The only opening-day starters left in the defensive backfield are Tao Johson (nickel) and Zemaiah Vaughn (corner).

It leaves plenty of room for a young wave of players to get time. Smith Snowden, a former top recruit, could push for more snaps. Nate Ritchie, Elijah Davis and Johnathan Hall could, too.

The youth movement was bound to happen at some point. But maybe not all at once. Snowden, Ritchie, Davis and Hall are all underclassmen. Scalley has always fielded a strong defense. This will put it to the test.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes cornerback Smith Snowden (17) practices one handed catches as the Utah Utes host the Oregon Ducks, NCAA football in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 28, 2023.

Don’t forget, Utah’s two best defensive transfers were in the secondary. Gilman plays safety and Cameron Calhoun (Michigan) lines up at corner. Kenan Johnson also comes in at corner from Georgia Tech.

Which departures will hurt the most?

Spring camp will also be a chance to gauge where Utah needs to add before August. The second transfer window will open after camp and it will be the final chance for Kyle Whittingham to tweak the roster.

At the moment, Utah has brought in nine additions (mostly in the secondary and at receiver). But which positions will need more?

Will the offensive line be a strength after losing Sataoa Laumea and Keaton Bills? Will the running back room handle the loss of Ja’Quiden Jackson, who bolted for Arkansas? Will another quarterback be necessary?

Even going back for more receivers isn’t out of the question. Utah is replacing Mikey Matthews (now at Cal).

(James Roh | Special to The Tribune) Utah Utes running back Ja’Quinden Jackson (3) celebrates a touchdown during the first half against the California Golden Bears at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, October 14, 2023.

Utah has players at each of these positions who could fill in. But if there is not enough progress in spring camp, Whittingham could look for reinforcements.

Whittingham said in December he has space in the 85 scholarship count to add via the portal. Utah will go mining at some point, but at which positions?

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