The QB's are back — but who takes the lead?
Entering the spring season, offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig was expecting to have nearly 6 months to evaluate and decide who would replace record-setting quarterback Tyler Huntley.
It's a massive spot to fill so Ludwig was going to need every bit of evaluation of the quarterbacks to see who would be able to fill those shoes and hopefully take Utah over the top of the mountain.
But the COVID-19 pandemic had different plans, ultimately cancelling Utah's spring and summer practice season after just three of 15 scheduled practices. That means that Ludwig's evaluation of graduate transfer Jake Bentley and redshirt sophomore Cam Rising was stuck to being done in Zoom meetings over a computer screens.
“The quarterback room from 1-3 may be as good a 1-3 as you’ll find in the country,” Ludwig told The Salt Lake Tribune last month. “I don’t mean in terms of the best quarterbacks, but in terms of three guys that are very confident in their skills, as athletes, and in their football intellect. I’m fired up about this group and I love meeting with them. It is a group of football junkies that get it.”
Those third guy joining that group who's in the running is senior Drew Lisk — although many in the program and pundits throughout the nation believe that it'll be a two-man race between Bentley and Rising.
Interesting enough, Bentley and Rising are both transfer quarterbacks whom possess obvious strengths and weaknesses for the Utes. But without a spring football season and the athletes just now getting back to work on a field with teammates, it's going to be interesting how head coach Kyle Whittingham, Ludwig and his staff decipher who's the man leading the way.
*Chemistry w/ new teammates
*Understanding of new playbook
The first thing that jumps off at you when checking out Bentley is his experience, particularly in the SEC. He went 19-14 in his career with the Gamecocks, including a 10-7 showing in the SEC, widely considered the most difficult conference in college football.
He led South Carolina to the Belk Bowl in 2018 and the Outback Bowl in 2017, even taking home MVP honors during the Outback Bowl. He's one of the most prolific passers in Gamecock history, ranking in the top-5 in career completion percentage (.625), career pass completions (626), passing touchdowns (55), career passing yards (7,527) and career total offense (7,670).
He also shows up in big games, throwing for 510 yards and five touchdowns in a 56-35 loss to Clemson during the 2018 season, the same year that the Tigers won the national championship. The 35 points scored by South Carolina were the most the Tigers gave up all season long.
Bentley can make all the throws needed as he plays with very good poise. He's got a very solid frame at 6-foot-4, 220-pounds and is considered a dual threat passer, often extending plays and drives by picking up yards when the pocket breaks down.
“Jake is a big addition for us. In today’s world with the (transfer) portal and the way things are changing, the quarterback room can change dramatically from year to year,” Whittingham said when Bentley signed. “That’s the position that undergoes the most change. We’re excited to have Jake in the room. He’s got a big arm, more of a pro-style guy.”
But despite all of those positives, there are some major cons that go against Bentley considering the shutdown of college football activities due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Because Utah was only able to get three spring practices in, it means that Bentley got very little time to spend with his new teammates and develop some sort of chemistry with his offense. He also is learning a brand new playbook virtually, being unable to meet with the coaches and other quarterbacks to dissect the finer points of offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig's complicated offense.
And lastly, he's coming off a foot injury suffered last season that required surgery and caused him to miss the rest of the season. Not playing for almost a full calendar year, and with very little practice time as well, usually doesn't make for a good recipe of success.
Bentley said Ludwig made it extremely clear, as did a lot of the other coaches, that nothing would be handed to him. He was only promised the opportunity to come in, compete and hopefully earn the job.
“Going into it, I told my dad and all of the other coaches that were talking to me that I wanted a situation where I could grow as a person and a football player. Those were the two big things I was looking for. Utah really is a special place,” Bentley told The State newspaper in South Carolina. “The numbers that Tyler put up last year at Utah were impressive. So I wanted to be a part of that. I definitely think it’s going to prepare me for the next level, and obviously it’s a great program that I wanted to be a part of.”
When thinking about Rising, it's apparent that he possesses a strong skillset that could translate into an above-average starter in the Pac-12.
He's been with the Utes for the entirety of last season, often serving as the scout-team quarterback. That time spent in the locker room and in meetings with teammates and coaches is invaluable and immediately gives him a level of comfort that Bentley doesn't have.
Also by being with the team for the previous season, it's apparent that he feels as if he's a leader in the locker room and is a guy that when he speaks, his teammates listen to what he says.
According to reports from coaches and players, the combination of he and wide receiver Britain Covey was near unstoppable. With the both of them expected back this year, Rising will enter fall camp already with a No. 1 wide receiver, a guy who he knows and trusts.
Another positive for Rising is that if he was to earn the starting quarterback role, he still has three years of eligibility entering this season. That would help stabilize the quarterback role, which could only help on the recruiting trail as time comes.
On the other end, the sophomore was one of the better QB prospects in high school and after committing to Texas, redshirted during his freshman season. He was then forced to sit out last season due to transfer rules, meaning that Rising has yet to play a meaningful snap of football in two seasons.
The combination of that time off and that lack of in-game experience are definitely scary to think about, but there are a lot of positives to like in Rising's game and potential.