Last December, it seemed like Utah coach Kyle Whittingham and his staff had pulled a major coup by pulling a veteran, proven quarterback out of the transfer portal.
Baylor transfer Charlie Brewer had impressive credentials, having thrown for nearly 10,000 yards and having led the Bears to the Sugar Bowl at the end of the 2019 season.
But Brewer’s time in Salt Lake City, as it turned out, was brief.
Tuesday, just three games into the 2021 season, Whittingham said that Brewer has left the program.
“Charlie has decided to move on and we wish him the best,” Whittingham said in a statement.
In three games, Brewer completed 61% of his passes for 484 yards with three touchdowns and three interceptions. He was a four-year starter at Baylor. Because he played only three games this season, Brewer still has a year of eligibility remaining.
Brewer’s departure came just days after he was replaced by sophomore Cam Rising in the Utes’ 33-31 triple overtime loss to San Diego State in Carson, California.
When Rising, a 6-foot-2, 220-pound sophomore from Ventura, California, entered the game, Utah was trailing 24-10 and the offense looked lifeless.
Rising, who started his career at Texas before transferring to Utah after the 2018 season and redshirting in 2019, provided a jolt to his team and rallied his teammates, as the Utes tied the game with 16 seconds remaining before falling in three OTs.
As he entered the huddle for the first time Saturday, Rising lit a fire under his teammates, vocally urging them to play up to their potential. In a little more than one quarter, Rising completed 19 of 32 passes for 153 yards and three touchdowns. His final TD came on a beautiful 25-yard pass to Jaylen Dixon in overtime.
After the game, questions surfaced about the quarterback situation.
On Monday, Whittingham didn’t disclose which QB would be his starter this week.
“We have a solid idea of what we’re going to do but we won’t make any official announcement,” he said. “You’ll see him trot out there Saturday.”
Tuesday morning, the depth chart was released, featuring Rising as the starter and Ja’Quinden Jackson as the backup.
Is Rising the elixir that can heal what ails the 1-2 Utes and save their season?
Certainly, Utah has a number of issues on offense that have been exposed through the first three games. The offensive line has struggled, the running game has been inconsistent and the wide receivers and tight ends haven’t made enough plays.
But Rising could be exactly what this team needs as it heads into its Pac-12 opener Saturday (12:30 p.m. MDT, Pac-12 Network) at home against Washington State.
Rising and Brewer competed in a fierce quarterback battle during fall camp, with Rising pushing Brewer until just a week before the start of the season. Ultimately, Brewer was named the starter.
Now, Rising is Utah’s starting quarterback — for the second time.
Rising earned the starting job a year ago. He was taking the snaps at the start of the COVID-affected 2020 campaign until he was injured in the second quarter of the opener against USC.
Just 14 plays into the game, Rising suffered a season-ending shoulder injury to his throwing arm as he attempted to recover a fumble. He finished completing 3-of-6 passes for 45 yards with no touchdowns and an interception.
It’s a moment he’ll never forget.
“I still remember it to a T. I’ve watched it over and over and seen it so much that I remember it,” Rising said of the injury. “I remember going through the pain. … I thought my shoulder was hurting. It was stuck. I had to pull it down on the field. In that moment, I felt some pain but I didn’t think it was too serious until I got to the (medical) tent and they did some tests on me. It kind of showed how bad it was.”
After undergoing season-ending surgery, Rising worked tirelessly rehabbing his shoulder and though he couldn’t participate in spring drills, Rising was engaged during the whole process, even as Brewer shined in practices and in the spring scrimmage.
But during fall camp, it was Rising, not Brewer, that was named one of the team captains.
Rising’s leadership was on full display last Saturday as he jump-started the Utes’ languishing offense.
As Whittingham watched from the sideline what was unfolding on the field, he decided something needed to change.
“We needed a spark. We were looking for something. We’ve got an excellent quarterback in Cam Rising, who’s the No. 2 guy. Why not give him a shot?” Whittingham said. “He’s worked hard in practice, as hard as anybody else. He’s prepared himself the right way. I had no doubt in my mind that he was ready to play because that’s the type of kid that he is. I thought, given the circumstances, he deserved that opportunity.”
Rising entered the game with five minutes left in the third quarter and led a pair of touchdown drives in the fourth quarter.
“It was rough at the start. We did not come out and execute and play football like we play football,” Rising said. “We shot ourselves in the foot and it put us in a bad situation. We had to battle back. That’s what we tried to get accomplished at that point.”
Utah’s players weren’t surprised to see Rising’s impact on the field as offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig switched to a high-tempo attack in an attempt to make a comeback.
“Cam’s a great leader. I’ve said that before and I’ll stand by it. He brings a different energy around him,” said tight end Dalton Kincaid. “He’s a super outgoing guy. He’s a huge extrovert. I think we got into a hurry-up offense, moving the ball more effectively, especially on that last drive, just keeping the defense tired because San Diego State was a big blitz team.”
Utah tight ends coach Freddie Whittingham said there were a few factors that played a role in the offense’s resurgence during the fourth quarter.
“I think there were a lot of things that kind of changed in that fourth quarter. We were in a position where we needed to go tempo. We were going no-huddle, we were pushing the tempo,” he said. “No matter who’s in at quarterback, we believe we’ve got the guy to pull the trigger and make things happen.
“It was more about the situation. It was about being down by (14 points) and understanding that, hey, we’re two touchdowns away from tying this up, going into overtime and having a chance to win. That’s what all the focus was on. It happened that Cam came in and did a great job. He was the guy to lead those last two touchdowns.”
Utah’s other offensive team captain, Britain Covey, said Rising had earned his teammates’ respect because his attitude never changed, regardless of circumstances.
“When he was the backup, he was just as hyped and excited as when he was the starter. You can’t say that about everybody. A lot of times when people aren’t playing, they’re sitting on the sideline — it’s not that they’re pouting but they’re not as hyped and they’re not hyping people up as much,” Covey said. “And when they do get called in, and you bring that energy, it just feels like a different person. Cam is that person all of the time.
“When Charlie won the job, there was no drop-off or disappointment from Cam that you could see. He was still passionate. So I think that’s what people could rally behind, was the fact that we’re going to get that from Cam 24-7.”
After the game, though disappointed in the outcome, the Utes praised Rising’s performance.
“It was just the spark we needed, I guess. He’s a captain. He’s a leader. He did a great job when he came in,” said linebacker Devin Lloyd. “I saw his maturity as far as being in this offense for three years now and just being a leader. He’s always been a gamer. He’s been a baller since he came here. He just put that on display right now.”
Looking at the situation, Rising was put in a difficult spot Saturday, with the offense sputtering and trailing by two touchdowns.
But Rising didn’t see it that way.
“It wasn’t hard because you have guys out there that are working to get open and making sure the O-line started blocking and doing a great job,” Rising said. “It really showed dividends once that started to happen. It’s making sure the athletes touch the ball so they can make the plays. They’re the playmakers.”
That Rising didn’t see that situation as a big obstacle makes sense. He experienced much worse when he suffered that shoulder injury last November and then watched Brewer get all the attention and get most of the reps with the first-team offense during the offseason.
It seemed like a foregone conclusion that Brewer would be the Utes’ starting QB.
But last summer, Rising told the Deseret News that he welcomed the challenge of vying for the starting job.
“I can’t wait to go compete during fall camp. I think it’s going to be a fun time,” he said at the time. “I remember feeling the pressure of the competition (last year) and how much it pushed me to go harder. It feels similar to this year. It’s doing the same thing this year. I love competition. It’s something I want each and every day out on the field. I’m looking forward to doing it again.”
Meanwhile, the coaching staff was amazed by Rising’s resilience during fall camp.
“It’s unbelievable to come back from shoulder surgery on his throwing arm, spinning the way he’s doing it with velocity and accuracy,” Ludwig said in August. “It speaks volumes to his relentless rehab and the doctors and training staff and everyone that put him back together.”
Center Nick Ford said at the time he couldn’t believe how well Rising was playing.
“A couple of days ago, I was watching film and I was like, ‘Wait, I didn’t even remember Cam just had surgery,’” Ford said. “He was slinging the ball all over the place.”
Aside from his on-field performance, the Utes made it clear how much they respected Rising by voting him a team captain.
“It’s really hard to be named captain when coming off an injury … That’s where I really admire Cam. He’s been in rehab all spring and most of the summer. And yet, he’s still taken the time to be with the guys, and take that leadership role,” Covey said less than a month ago. “The other thing about Cam is, he’s very jovial. You will never see Cam without a huge smile on his face.
“To me, he looks like a ‘VeggieTales’ character. He’s constantly smiling with his mustache, and his long hair, very approachable. I’m really proud of him for being named captain.”
Now, for the second time in his career, Rising is also Utah’s starting quarterback.