Scott Mitchell learned everything he needed to know about Utah quarterback Cam Rising when Rising lost the starting job to Charlie Brewer last August.

Mitchell, who threw for nearly 9,000 yards and 69 touchdowns with the Utes in the late 1980s, has been impressed with Rising for a long time. And he has enormous expectations for Rising going into the 2022 season. 

Rising transferred to Utah from Texas and redshirted in 2019. After earning the starting job for the truncated 2020 campaign, Rising suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in the first half against USC.

Over the next several months, Rising rehabbed and kept working, even as the coaching staff brought in Brewer, a Baylor transfer, who enjoyed a perfect performance in the spring game.

When fall camp opened in August ahead of the 2021 season, Brewer and Rising staged a competitive battle for the starting job, which Brewer ultimately won. In some type of foreshadowing, Rising had already been named a team captain, which exemplified what his teammates thought about him. 

Despite not winning the starting job, Rising didn’t sulk. He supported Brewer and his teammates. 

“Most kids in our world today would transfer,” Mitchell said. “I think that it speaks to his mindset and it helped him when he played, that when things are tough, he’s not a guy that’s going to bail on you.”

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Brewer and the offense struggled in a loss to BYU. The following week at San Diego State, the Utes sputtered once again and dug themselves a hole. 

Utah trailed 24-10 when Rising entered the game with 5:24 left in the third quarter. In the fourth quarter, Rising led a furious rally, erasing the two-touchdown deficit.

Ultimately, the Utes fell in triple overtime. But the coaches realized they had a new starting quarterback. Rising had emerged. 

Days later, Brewer entered the transfer portal. Rising, meanwhile, led Utah to a 9-1 record in the final 10 games of the regular season, and to the program’s first Pac-12 championship and first Rose Bowl berth. Rising earned Pac-12 All-Conference first-team honors.

One of Rising’s most impressive performances came in a 42-26 victory at USC, marking the Utes’ first win over the Trojans in Los Angeles in 105 years — against the same team that had knocked him out the year before.

Rising finished the season completing 64% of his passes for 2,493 yards with 20 touchdowns and five interceptions. He also rushed for 499 yards and six TDs. 

During that memorable campaign, Rising proved his toughness again and again. 

“Tough is converting third downs. Tough is winning at USC. Tough is going 1-2 in your nonconference and then going 9-1 in conference play and winning the Pac-12 championship game,” Mitchell said. “It’s part of his DNA. He’s a tough-minded individual. No game is bigger than him. A lot of it speaks to the character of who he is in those moments when I imagine it sucked when he wasn’t named the starter.”

Rising expectations

Entering the 2022 season, Rising isn’t going to sneak up on anybody. Opposing teams have a year’s worth of film on him. Everybody knows who he is. Rising is being mentioned as someone that deserves a spot on Heisman Watch lists.

A lot should be expected of Rising as he enters the season as the undisputed starter, according to Mitchell. 

“Cam Rising right now should be considered a Heisman Trophy candidate,” he said. “That’s my expectation.”

But Mitchell’s expectations don’t end there. 

“The expectation is that Utah ends up in the College Football Playoff. I think that’s what they think, too. I think Cam Rising thinks that. That expectation is, this isn’t bigger than us,” he said. “With the type of talent they have coming back, across the board (that should be the expectation).

“But also the maturity and the experience and the culture that’s at Utah right now. This is a team and a program that’s really right at that place, that place of winning the conference championship was amazing; the Rose Bowl was incredible, but we can do more. That’s what more is.”

Utah has an ideal opportunity to prove itself on a national stage with a season opener at Florida, on national television. A win at The Swamp against an SEC opponent like the Gators could pay huge dividends. 

Utah quarterback Cam Rising evades the tackle of Oregon linebacker Noah Sewell during the Pac-12 championship game.
Utah Utes quarterback Cam Rising evades the tackle from Oregon Ducks linebacker Noah Sewell (1) during the Pac-12 championship game at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas on Friday, Dec. 3, 2021. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

“You couldn’t pick a better beginning because there aren’t that many marquee games that early. You get on the national radar quickly. You’re probably going to be a top-10 team going into the season,” Mitchell said. “Every Saturday, in the college football discussion, single-digit Utah is playing so-and-so this week. To me, that first game at Florida sets the tone for everything. It’s one of those things that the publicity you’ll get from that for the rest of the year, regardless of what Florida is.”

It’s a high-risk, high-reward scenario.

Mitchell compared it to what BYU did early during the 2020 season, when it dominated Navy on national TV when few teams were playing due to the pandemic.

“Everyone at the time thought, ‘Navy’s a really good team.’ BYU put it on them. It has that type of thing,” he said. “It’s like Oregon last year going to Ohio State and winning early. And maybe Oregon wasn’t as good as everything thought. But everyone thought they were most of the year. It’s that kind of publicity. You lay an egg and lose, forget it. Forget it as far as it would be really hard, not impossible, but really hard for Utah. Now you’re really swimming upstream if you lose that first game.”

‘When he got his shot, he made it happen’

What is it about Cam Rising? The man that became a cult hero of sorts last fall, taking the field at Rice-Eccles Stadium to the song “Bad Moon Rising” blaring from the loudspeakers? The man that gives off an easygoing southern California vibe and looks like a 15th-century explorer? How was he able to be the spark that helped the Utes make such a dramatic turnaround last season? 

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“So much of it is personality. It’s your body language, how you talk to people but it’s also how you play on the field. When your teammates see you with a sense of urgency or they see you not just going through the motions,” Mitchell said. “That’s really what it felt like with the offense with Charlie Brewer. Not a good fit.

“With Cam Rising it was like, ‘We’ve got to convert on third down.’ There’s got to be a sense of urgency to get that done. He was so good at that, from the very start. When you’re a guy that you lose your starting spot, how do you carry yourself? He was a guy that didn’t pout or complain. He worked hard. When he got his shot, he made it happen.” 

Teammates certainly noticed Rising’s patience and determination, which was manifest by the way they performed when he came onto the field. 

Utah Utes quarterback Cameron Rising fist-bumps Tavion Thomas as he leaves the field after getting injured in the game against Ohio State in the 108th Rose Bowl game in Pasadena, Calif., on Saturday, Jan. 1, 2022. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

“You don’t know when your opportunity is going to come. So you’ve got to be able to answer that. And players see that. They also want to win,” Mitchell said. “When a guy comes out and executes and performs and has a competitive fire in him, people go, ‘Yeah! Let’s go.’ It picks everyone up. It’s amazing how all of that happens.”

The crazy thing, Mitchell said, is Rising’s attitude is genuine and natural. 

“So often as a player, you can get in your head. ‘We’re not playing good today’ and you have those negative thoughts and it impacts your performance. You have a guy come in and say, ‘BS on that. We’re going to win this game right now.’ That thought process, that change, those words of a positive direction have a massive impact on the people around you. It changed everything. It’s weird, but it works. It’s authentic.

“He’s not this guy that read this out of a book. ‘Here’s what you say in this situation.’ He genuinely loves playing football, he genuinely loves being at Utah. He genuinely loves competing. And winning. Authenticity is so important.” 

What kind of jump can Rising make in 2022?

For all of his success and accomplishments in 2021, Rising has room for improvement. Mitchell identified two areas where Rising can grow his game. 

There are some accuracy issues, but that’s part of being new. I know there were some throws a year ago that he just kind of missed. If you’re going to be an elite guy, you’ve got to nail those all the time,” he said. “I’m nit-picking here. But better accuracy on some throws.”

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What else?

“He’s a great runner. Very understated as a runner. He’s really good. You don’t want to take away from his all-gas-no-brakes mindset. But there’s a couple of times when you need to touch the brakes and get out of bounds and protect yourself,” Mitchell said. “It’s about understanding situations because you want him to be healthy. Healthy isn’t just that he’s out there, you don’t want him to be dealing with some nagging injury the whole year that affects his performance. You want to be as clean as you possibly can as a scrambling quarterback.”

Catch a Rising star 

Mitchell was a fourth-round NFL draft pick of the Miami Dolphins and spent 10 years in the league.

Does Rising have a future in the NFL? 

“There’s a spark about him. Yeah, I can see him being an NFL guy. I’m not sure how strong his arm really is. That’s not the most important thing for an NFL quarterback. It’s about throwing at the right time and at the right location. That’s job No. 1,” Mitchell said. “I could give you a million guys that have been massively successful without the strongest arms in the world, and guys with rocket arms that weren’t that good. There’s enough arm strength there.

Utah Utes quarterback Cameron Rising runs down the sideline trying to avoid the tackle from UCLA Bruins defensive back Obi Eboh (22) at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 30, 2021. | Adam Fondren, for the Deseret News

“Just having that accuracy and anticipation, he gets that figured out, and yeah. He’s got such a great demeanor about him,” Mitchell continued. “It’s that ‘it’ factor. It’s like Tom Brady. They couldn’t measure Tom Brady’s ‘it’ factor. It didn’t show up at the combine. But it showed up. Tom Brady was the most immobile quarterback and he’s the greatest of all time. You can succeed with a lot of different skill sets. Yeah, Cam could do it.”

But first, Rising has this upcoming season with Utah. Yes, expectations are high. 

Rising has already etched his name in Utah football lore. But perhaps there’s more unprecedented achievements to come. 

Heisman Trophy? Back-to-back Pac-12 titles? College Football Playoff? 

“It’s the whole thing where there are players that perform well on their own, and they become the star. Then there are players that perform and bring everyone else along with them. And they become legendary,” Mitchell said. “Cam’s one of those players that can rally the troops, raise the expectations and the belief.

“To me, it’s fun to see how that evolves this year. Where does it go? Utah had never been to the Rose Bowl, had never won a Pac-12 championship and you need a quarterback that has that supreme confidence and not let the moment be bigger than they are. Just to rise up to those moments. He’s so good at that.”

The Utah football team walks onto the field on Jan. 1, 2022, for the game against Ohio State in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif.
Utah Utes long snapper Keegan Markgraf, wide receiver Britain Covey, linebacker Devin Lloyd, quarterback Cameron Rising and defensive end Mika Tafua (42) walk onto the field for the game against Ohio State in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., on Saturday, Jan. 1, 2022. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News