Spring practices are over, and Utah enters the offseason eyeing a Pac-12 three-peat this fall.

The Utes have talked a lot about winning an unprecedented three consecutive conference titles. But entering the 2023 campaign, after two straight Rose Bowl losses, their sights are even higher. 

“To this point, he’s doing great. We fully expect to have him for the opener, certainly, unless we have a setback. In preparation for that, hopefully 10-14 days out from the opener where he can really practice.” — Kyle Whittingham on Cam Rising

“We want to be able to win (a Rose Bowl),” said running back Micah Bernard. “We want to be able to win something bigger than a Pac-12 championship. Those are nice. We want to get another one, but we want something bigger.”

Utah is set up for another big season, thanks in part to the return of stars like quarterback Cam Rising and tight end Brant Kuithe

Rising suffered a major knee injury in the Rose Bowl in January and was sidelined during the spring.

But coach Kyle Whittingham said Rising is expected to be ready to go when the Utes kick off the season Aug. 31 at home against Florida. In fact, Whittingham said he expects Rising to be ready to go in fall camp. 

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“He’s throwing already. He’s ahead of schedule with his rehab. We don’t want to push it because if you do that, you end up with chronic soreness and swelling,” Whittingham said. “To this point, he’s doing great. We fully expect to have him for the opener, certainly, unless we have a setback. In preparation for that, hopefully 10-14 days out from the opener where he can really practice.”

Kuithe, meanwhile, suffered a season-ending knee injury in late September. 

“We expect him to be fully ready in the summer for conditioning, which starts on May 29. He should be cleared very shortly thereafter, if not on that date,” Whittingham said. “His timeline is two or three months ahead of Cam’s because of the timing of the injury. He’s had a lot more time to rehab and he should be good to go, barring anything unforeseen.” 

Meanwhile, Whittingham indicated that his program will be active in the transfer portal. 

“We’re in pretty good shape overall. But we do have a few deficiencies,” he said. “There is room on the roster to add maybe as many as a half a dozen players.”

Here’s a look at the status of the offense heading into the summer months, as well as our projected post-spring offensive depth chart. 

Battle for No. 2 QB

Red quarterback Bryson Barnes, focuses on the end zone as he runs in for a TD in the 22 Forever Game at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, April 22, 2023. Barnes is battling Nate Johnson and Brandon Rose for backup QB duties. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

One of the main objectives of spring ball was to solidify a backup for Rising. 

Whittingham said he has a pretty good idea of what the depth chart looks like at that position right now.

“But there’s still some competition that’s going to take place,” he said. “They’ll work on their own through summer and then early in (fall) camp, we’ll continue to take a look at them.”

For now, redshirt freshman Brandon Rose is “leading the pack,” Whittingham said, with redshirt freshman Nate Johnson and junior Bryson Barnes “right there at his heels.”

How does Whittingham assess the QB room? 

“Coming out of just what happened in the spring, Brandon is the guy. If we had to play tomorrow, he’d start. Fortunately, we don’t have to play tomorrow. We’ll continue to get these guys better and let that competition continue to play out. It’s definitely between those three guys,” he said. “It’s Cam, obviously, and then those three guys battling for two, three and four.

“They will get all the reps early in camp, those three guys, fairly soon in camp. It will have to be cut to two. Then those guys will get the reps. When Cam gets back, it’s Cam and whoever wins that job. That’s where we’re at.”

Whittingham liked the progress the quarterbacks made during the spring. 

“It’s unfortunate that Nate Johnson missed one-third of spring because he was really starting to come around before he got hurt and then he finished on a very positive note,” he said. “We’re not a finished product as far as the pecking order. But we know a lot more now than we did at the onset of spring ball.”

Bernard said that although Rising didn’t participate in spring practices, his presence was felt. 

“He wants to get back out here as fast as he can. If he’s going to help us out, him being on the field is exactly where he needs to be. He’s our leader. Wherever he is, wherever he’s cheering, that’s him.”

Thin at wide receiver

Utah’s Money Parks runs with the ball against Penn State in the 109th Rose Bowl in Pasadena on Monday, Jan. 2, 2023. | Ben B. Braun, Deseret News

Both Whittingham and offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig have singled out the wide receiver position as a concern. It’s the biggest concern on the offense.

Junior Devaughn Vele and junior Money Parks are proven pass-catchers and true freshman Mikey Matthews had an impressive spring. 

The Utes were already thin before Tiquan Gilmore and Chris Reed entered the transfer portal. 

“Everything is calculated and we’re going to try to improve the room. We need to improve the room and the depth. Just because guys go out doesn’t mean that’s a bad thing. You’ve gotta create space,” Whittingham said. “We wish those guys well that are departing. But that was already figured into the plan.

“We had anticipated certain moves happening. It doesn’t alter what we’re going to do at all. We have the same needs, same approach. We are addressing it now and hopefully finalizing it in the next week or two.”

So it appears Utah will be aggressive in the transfer portal when it comes to finding wide receiver help. 

First-year wide receivers coach Alvis Whitted acknowledged there’s work to do. 

“I think that we need to find a couple more guys that can help cement the room and help the room,” he said. “That’s what it’s all about — putting guys in positions to have success. We do need that. I know we’ll address it after the spring moving forward. Not necessarily enough playmakers. But that will be addressed.”

How does Whitted evaluate the wide receivers in the program? 

“There’s a lot of room for growth. The guys that have been available and gotten the reps have taken advantage of them. Clearly, we have two guys that have really shown that they have presented themselves as those guys that can be playmakers,” he said. “One guy that has elevated himself a little bit is Mikey Matthews in regard to his retention and knowledge of the playbook and being able to apply those details.

“He’s gotten better as he’s gotten the reps. Money Parks and Devaughn Vele have been the guys that have had the most experience and they’ve been the most productive during camp. We’ve got to continue to work.”

Offensive line is a strength

Utah offensive lineman Keaton Bills (51) will help anchor the Utes’ offensive line, which has three returning starters, in 2023. | Young Kwak, Associated Press

Whittingham and offensive line coach Jim Harding feel good about the O-line, which returns three starters —  left guard Keaton Bills, right guard Michael Mokofisi and right tackle Sataoa Laumea.

“We think the offensive line is a big strength,” Whittingham said. “We’re going to have probably a dozen guys competing for 10 spots to fill that offensive line out. Typically, you have trouble finding eight, nine and 10. … That’s a strong suit for us.”

Among those vying for starting spots include Zereoue Williams, Falcon Kaumatule, Jaren Kump, Tanoa Togiai and Kolinu’u Faaiu, Spencer Fano, Solatoa Moeai, Hunter Deuel, Johnny Maea and Keith Olson. 

Harding liked what he saw from the linemen during the spring. 

“The thing that sticks out the most is their willingness to work. They’re doing a great job of taking the fundamentals and techniques we’re doing in individual drills and trying to incorporate them in the crossover stuff,” he said. “It’s a really good group of kids. We’re excited about what the fall holds for this group. Certainly, we have work to do between now and the first time we line up. But we have a good foundation set.”

How does Harding view the O line? 

“I have a lot of confidence in our run blocking. Pass protection is always something a continued focus for us, specifically on the edge,” he said. “We’ve worked different guys at tackles through the years. Probably just making sure that we shore up the edges. That’s where the best pass-rushers are. We’ve got to continue to be effective in pass protection at the tackle position.”

Ja’Quinden Jackson leads the running backs

Utah Utes Ja’Quinden Jackson, wearing red, runs the ball vs. Penn State in Rose Bowl.
Utah’s Ja’Quinden Jackson carries the ball against Penn State in the 109th Rose Bowl in Pasadena on Monday, Jan. 2, 2023. | Ben B. Braun, Deseret News

Last season, as Utah dealt with personnel issues and injuries at running back, Ja’Quinden Jackson switched from quarterback to running back. He only got better as the season went on. That progression continued in the spring.

“He’s getting better day by day. He takes coaching,” fellow running back Bernard said. “Coach (Quinton Ganther) helps him out a lot; I help him out a lot. He takes the coaching and puts it out on the field the next day.”

The Utes got a big boost at running back when Bernard returned to the program after a stint in the transfer portal. 

Sophomore Jaylon Glover was one of the most improved players during the spring, according to coaches. 

What’s made the difference for Glover?

“Experience, first of all. Being a freshman, you’re drinking water from a firehose. You’re seeing everything for the first time,” Ludwig said. “He’s made big-time strides. He’s seeing things much cleaner and he’s being much more decisive — putting his foot in the ground, getting north and south, finishing runs with low pad level.

“When you look at it, college football is really a junior and senior kind of game. For him to come in and contribute and have solid production as a true freshman, it’s a credit to him. But you know his best football is ahead of him.”

Also, Chris Curry returns after suffering a season-ending injury last September.

“The running backs room is strong with Ja’Quinden Jackson, Chris Curry and Micah Bernard and Jaylon Glover,” Whittingham said. “That’s a room that we feel like we have good depth at.” 

Tight end depth

Utah tight end Brant Kuithe heads upfield during a game against Florida in Gainesville, Fla., on Saturday, Sept. 3, 2022.
Utah Utes tight end Brant Kuithe makes a cut during a pass play as Utah and Florida play in Gainesville, Fla., on Saturday, Sept. 3, 2022. The Utes lost Dalton Kincaid to the NFL, but get Kuithe back from injury. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Last week, Utah saw star tight end Dalton Kincaid taken in the first round of the NFL draft by the Buffalo Bills. 

Kuithe is returning, which is a big deal. 

“His rehab has been progressing,” said tight ends coach Freddie Whittingham. “With the type of injuries he’s had, you do see five to seven months is pretty much the time … I think he’s right where he should be and we’re expecting him to be totally healthy going into fall camp.”

Also returning is Thomas Yassmin while Miki Suguturaga, a converted defensive lineman. Munir McClain, Noah Bennee and Hayden Erickson are also in the mix. 

“We’ll probably be looking at a transfer portal tight end if the right one comes up that wants to come to Utah to help build the depth in the room,” Freddie Whittingham said. “I do believe there are guys that are playing at a high level that maybe you guys don’t know about yet.”

Utes’ projected offensive depth chart

Starter — Backup

QB 7 Cam Rising (Sr.) — 8 Brandon Rose (Fr.)

RB 3 Ja’Quinden Jackson (So.) — 2 Micah Bernard (Jr.)

WR 17 Devaughn Vele (Jr.) — 12 Sidney Mbanasor (Fr.)

WR 10 Money Parks (Jr.) — 11 Makai Cope (So.)

WR 0 Mikey Matthews (Fr.) — 29 — Franky Jacobsen (Fr.)

TE 80 Brant Kuithe (Sr.) — 87 Thomas Yassmin (Sr.)

LT 59 Falcon Kaumatule (Jr.) — 76 Zereoue Williams (So.)

LG 51 Keaton Bills (Jr.) — 73 Tanoa Togiai (So.)

C 61 Kolinu’u Faaiu (So.) — 68 Jaren Kump (Jr.)

RG 52 Michael Mokofisi (So.) — 55 Spencer Fano (Fr.)

RT 78 Sataoa Laumea (Sr.) — 62 Solatoa Moeai (Fr.)