Eighty days after losing a heartbreaker to Ohio State in a wild, unforgettable Rose Bowl, Utah opened up spring practices Tuesday in preparation for the 2022 campaign. 

The defending Pac-12 champions participated in the first of 15 practices, which will culminate with the annual Spring Game on April 23. 

“It’s what you’d expect with a lot of returning players that are experienced and have played a lot of football for us,” coach Kyle Whittingham said about the first day. “It was clean; very few mistakes. It’s what we should have done today and we did. So it was a good start.”

The season doesn’t kick off until Sept. 3 at Florida, but the Utes know that they’ll have a target on their backs in the fall. 

“We’re the champions coming back. We’re not going to sneak up on anybody,” Whittingham said. “There’s a lot of good teams in the (Pac-12) South. We’ve just got to go about our business like we usually do. We don’t have that under-the-radar feel to us this year.”

One of the things that was different Tuesday — unlike the spring of 2020 and 2021 — the Utes know who their starting quarterback is. The past two seasons, they have staged fierce QB battles. 

But this year, junior Cam Rising, a first-team All-Pac-12 Conference quarterback, returns and is the undisputed starter. 

“It’s a big advantage, especially one that was first-team All-Pac-12,” Whittingham said. “Cam has been voted one of our captains. He’s a team leader, obviously. He’s our guy and it’s great to have that situation. It sure beats the alternative.”

Does spring feel different knowing who the starter is?

“I don’t know about a different vibe, but there’s a lot of confidence,” Whittingham said. “They believe in Cam. He’s a winner. He rallies the troops, which is what your quarterback needs to do.”

Last year, Rising posted a 9-2 record as the starter and he completed 204 of 320 passes for 2,493 yards with five interceptions and 20 touchdowns and he ran 74 times for 499 yards and six TDs. 

Still, ever the competitor, Rising isn’t approaching the spring any differently. 

“I’ve still got to compete for it. Just put my best foot forward and be as good as I can for the team. It’s the same mentality as before,” he said. “I still think I’ve got to come out here and compete each and every day. If you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse. I’ve got to make sure I’m putting my best foot forward for the team.”

Tight end Brant Kuithe likes that the QB position is settled. 

“It feels good. You know who’s going to be throwing you the ball next year,” he said. “You have the other guys trying to improve. So it’s great. I love having him back this year and trying to go win the Pac again.” 

Rising has all the tools a quarterback needs, Kuithe said. 

“He does everything well. There’s not much you can say bad, if anything,” he said. “He throws the ball well, he runs the ball well. He controls the offense well and he’s just a great leader for the team.”

Whittingham said the main focus this spring is to improve on the fundamentals. 

“Always fundamentals and technique in spring ball. Very little scheme. We just do the base stuff, the core defense and core offensive plays,” Whittingham said. “Not trying to out-scheme each other. We’re trying to get better fundamentally and technique-wise because that always trumps scheme. That’s what it’s all about.”

Since the end of the season, Rising has been leading his teammates in winter workouts. 

“Just trying to get the guys and everything going so that we’re coming out here and hitting the ground running in the spring,” he said. “It’s been going good so far. It’s nice to be here finally.”

Rising, like his teammates, enjoyed the 2021 campaign and what the Utes were able to accomplish.

“It was a good time. I love this team,” he said. “I love coming back out here and being with all of them. It’s a great time. It’s good to be out here again with everybody.”

Starting spring as defending Pac-12 champs hits a little differently, according to Rising. But some things never change. 

“You definitely walk a little different. It’s nice, but we still have to go out there and attack it this year,” he said. “Just because we won it last year doesn’t mean anything for this season. We have to go out there and prove it again.”