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Utes keeping lid on who their starting QB is, but here’s what it came down to

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham was pleased how players responded when learning of the decision

From right, quarterbacks Jake Bentley (8), Cam Rising (7), Drew Lisk (12) and Cooper Justice (9) huddle together during Utah football practice in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2020.
Courtesy Utah Athletics

Following a spirited quarterback battle, Utah’s coaching staff has settled on a starter.

Jake Bentley, Drew Lisk and Cam Rising have been competing for starting snaps since camp began.

While coach Kyle Whittingham has informed his team of the decision, he is hoping to maintain an element of surprise at that position before the Utes kick off the season at home against Arizona on Nov. 7.

The public will likely find out who the starting QB is on game day, when he takes the field.

“We’ll probably let him trot out there and do his thing. Why give the opponent any lead time to prepare?” Whittingham said. “Much like the running backs, there’s a fairly significant difference in the style and skill set of a couple of the guys. So we’ll probably just keep that to ourselves. It’s not the end of the world if it gets out somehow. I hope it doesn’t get out. But it works to our advantage if they don’t know who to prepare for. That’s the approach we’re taking.”

Whittingham said he was pleased with the way his players reacted to the announcement of the starter. “There was nobody sulking or hanging their head,” he said. “Everybody was working hard and moving forward.”

When asked what factors separated the starter from the other QBs, Whittingham was careful not to tip his hand.

“We just felt that we were looking for certain things in the quarterback and a certain skill set. Some things in the skill set are more important and weighed more heavily than others. Right there at the top of the list — we’ve charted every throw throughout fall camp — is accuracy. Completion percentage is so critical to moving the football and making first downs and getting into the end zone.

“That was right at the top of the list, followed by a laundry list of a bunch of other things. We methodically and very meticulously went through it. ... We came to the conclusion we did. But like we told the quarterbacks the other day, you’re one positive test away from being the guy or two positive tests away from the third guy being the guy. Crazy things are going to happen this season and we have to be ready to react to them and handle them.”

And what happens if the starter struggles in the early going? Will Whittingham turn to the backup?

“I don’t see a quick hook, but that being said, we’re not going to continue to stick with somebody if we’re not getting results. You’ve got to get results and you’ve got to have a certain performance standard,” the coach said. “So nothing is completely set in stone. We know who the starter is. But to say that he’s the starter no matter what happens is not accurate.

“But also we don’t want him looking over his shoulder and the first incompletion he throws he’ll worry about getting yanked,” Whittingham continued. “The first guy knows that we have confidence in him and we have confidence in the second guy as well. And the third, for that matter. We feel like we’ve got three good ones and maybe the best third quarterback in the country. He’s very talented as well. We’ll try to instill confidence in the first guy but it’s up to him to move the chains and get the team in the end zone and take care of the football. That’s got to happen. That’s what the quarterback’s job is.”

While talking about the quarterbacks, Whittingham underscored the reality of the unpredictability of this season, played during a pandemic.

“Like I told the team, every year handling adversity is a big part of success or lack thereof, depending on how you handle it,” he said. “This year, it’s going to be adversity times 10, as opposed to a normal season, with the COVID stuff going on.”