Utah has really found its offensive identity after a 1-2 start to the season that saw opening day starting quarterback Charlie Brewer struggle and then leave the program after the triple-overtime loss to San Diego State. The Utes made a quarterback switch, and the entire offense has improved mightily because of it.
Quarterback is where we start with Utah's top offensive players to watch for Saturday's game vs. No. 3 Oregon.
1. #7 Cameron Rising - Quarterback
Since Cameron Rising took over as the full-time starter, Utah's offense has been much better in every aspect, including the eye test. Rising's numbers may not scream Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year by any means, but his game management and ball security has taken the Utes a long way.
Rising has 14 touchdown passes against just two interceptions this season. He has underrated arm talent and accuracy and is athletic enough to wiggle out of the pocket when it is collapsing around him. He leads all Pac-12 quarterbacks with 7.1 rushing yards per carry and has four touchdowns on the ground.
The sophomore is very poised in the pocket, but he hasn't faced a defense that generates more pressures than Oregon. According to Pro Football Focus, Oregon has the fourth-most pressures of any team in the FBS this season.
In contrast, Utah has only allowed given up 10 sacks this season, but the offensive line has only allowed four sacks in the last seven weeks. They went four straight weeks without giving up a sack leading up to the Arizona game last weekend.
For Oregon to squeeze out a victory against Rising, it will have to limit his time in the pocket to find his impressive pass catchers down the field. The Utes may make their money as a rushing offense, but Rising can hurt teams with his arm as well.
2. #9 Tavion Thomas - Running Back
Oregon's rushing defense went from the seventh-best in the Pac-12 in the 2020 to the top of the conference in 2021 through 10 games. The Ducks will have to prove that they have the best rushing defense in the conference going up against Tavion Thomas and the Utes on Saturday.
Thomas has been one of the best running backs in the conference throughout the season, putting up 107 yards and two touchdowns in the season opener against Weber State. He's tacked on three games of more than 100 yards since, including two monstrous performances in his last two outings when he had at least 160 yards and four touchdowns in each game.
The big question with Thomas, however, is his health. It's not certain whether he will be in the lineup on Saturday as he missed the Arizona game with for an undisclosed reason. But when Thomas is on the field, the difference he makes is quite tangible.
Thomas is second in the Pac-12 in yards per carry at 6.1 and shares the league lead with 14 touchdowns. He's a physical specimen at 6'2" and 221 pounds, and he's not going to lose many battles one-on-one against defenders. He is athletic with the ball in his hands, surprisingly fast and shifty at his size, and has a strong grip on the football. After losing a fumble in each of the first two games of the year, he hasn't put the football on the turf.
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Surely, if Thomas isn't able to go, the Utes won't be helpless in the backfield. Fellow running back TJ Pledger is the only Pac-12 back averaging more yards per carry than Thomas, with an electric 7.3 yards per carry. He stepped up as the lead back in Thomas' absence against Arizona and recorded 119 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries.
Micah Bernard is another solid option at tailback. He has two 100-yard rushing games this year and is more of a receiving back than Pledger or Thomas.
3. #80 Brant Kuithe - Tight End
Brant Kuithe has been as reliable a tight end as you can ask for throughout his career. The fourth-year senior paces all Pac-12 tight ends with 36 receptions and five touchdown catches.
Kuithe has been Rising's go-to guy in the red zone with seven receptions and three touchdowns. He has also been the top target on third-and-long with four catches for 50 yards on third and 6+.
Utah won't use Kuithe as a deep threat by any means, but he always seems to find himself open in the middle of the field and is strong enough to put his shoulder down and find extra yardage.
He is one of two Utah tight ends that will get a bunch of targets along with Dalton Kincaid. Kincaid is a bigger target at 6'4 to Kuithe's 6'2," and he's had a breakout year with 24 catches for 345 yards and five touchdowns.
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