SALT LAKE CITY — Replacing Tyler Huntley is an obvious priority for the Utah Utes. Losing the first-team all-conference quarterback to graduation and the NFL has created an opportunity that is up for grabs.
There are three candidates for the job — transfers Jake Bentley (South Carolina) and Cam Rising (Texas), as well as former walk-on Drew Lisk. The trio had little to no separation after three spring practices. Then came the shutdown because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We got a glimpse of the three quarterbacks that are battling for the job,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. “Those guys are the ones that are going to be in the hunt.”
Picking the next starter will be a process and ultimately a somewhat fast one at that.
“Come fall camp, whenever that transpires, we’ve got to get that narrowed down to two right away,” Whittingham explained. “So we’ll have three going in that are in the mix, but we’ve got to get that to two fairly quickly and then ideally two weeks out from the opener we’ve got to decide on a guy and go from there.”
For now, though, the competition is being waged on several fronts. The players, like their teammates, are back in their individual hometowns waiting for the pandemic to subside.
Although they speak often and participate in regular Zoom meetings, the quarterbacks are geographically distant. Bentley is in South Carolina; Lisk is in Utah; and Rising is in California.
Each player is working hard to be the starting quarterback when the Utes kick off the season Sept. 3 at home against BYU, assuming the season starts as scheduled. They’re making the best out of a challenging situation being away from the team, the football facility and the campus.
“It’s extremely weird. It’s so foreign to everyone,” Rising said. “Just to go from seeing these guys every day to not seeing them at all, it’s a drastic change. So it makes it difficult.”
Thanks, however, to technology like Zoom, the players do speak to one another almost every day during the week. Rising said the quarterback meetings are very productive as they continue to learn the offense and progress together.
“Our goal is always to keep getting better — each and every one of us,” Rising said. “Just having such a competitive quarterback room is just going to make us all better.”
Each quarterback is hoping to make the best case to be the starter. Bentley noted it’s kind of hard to play the “what-if game” had spring ball been completed. A pecking order, perhaps, may have been established.
“I think the spring practice would have allowed us to do that. I think it would have been clear, you know, who it was,” Bentley said of the battle to be the starter. “Each day is an opportunity to compete, so it definitely would have been a fun situation to have those scrimmages and have those game-like reps.”
It didn’t happen, though, and the competition will continue into fall camp.
“So I guess it’ll shape out then and I think that’s why this time is so important — not take any steps back and keep getting better,” Bentley said.
The former South Carolina quarterback, who started all 33 games he played in for the Gamecocks, joined the Utes in January as a graduate transfer. He’s augmenting the loss of live install time with virtual meetings and getting things down conceptually on paper and then working on things.
Bentley has been a busy guy since returning home to South Carolina. He had a surgical plate removed from a foot injury that sidelined him for all but one game last season.
“Right now it feels 100% normal to me and I’m able to do everything and really have no limitations with anything,” said Bentley, who noted that the plate had made his foot a bit stiff and now he’s working to get all the muscles stronger like everything else.
Bentley begins a typical day with rehab. He later heads to a local field with his father and ninth-grade brother to throw the ball around. They work on what they can.
A workout on a homemade bench and squat rack are next, adhering to workouts provided by another sibling who is an assistant swim coach at Miami and Utah strength and conditioning coach Doug Eliasa. There are daily chats with offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig and a good meal cooked by mom each night.
Bentley, who spends an hour or two each day working to grasp the ins and outs of the Utah offense following the short spring, freely admits his days are filled with football and lifting. He’s watched a lot of film, too, and is quite familiar with how Huntley ran the offense last season.
It’s all about “kind of finding ways to get better every day,” Bentley said.
Health-wise, Bentley expects to be 100% ready by the time practices resume. In the meantime, his mindset is that the competition is ongoing.
It’s been a while since Bentley has played in a game. He was injured in South Carolina’s season opener against North Carolina on Aug. 31.
After leaving the field limping that day, Bentley is eager to get back out there and prove what he can do. In his tenure at South Carolina, Bentley netted 7,670 yards of offense and threw 55 touchdown passes.
Despite the impressive resume, Bentley isn’t taking anything for granted. It’s a mentality he’s taken.
“I’m just here to do my job. I know what I can do on the field and that’s kind of the way I think about it,” said Bentley, who added that he’s getting better every day competing and is going to give it his best shot.
“We’ll see what happens,” he said.
Bentley expressed confidence in Whittingham and the process to replace Huntley.
“He’s the head man and he could say we’re going to rotate all three all year,” Bentley said. “I mean, obviously, it’s not something I would like but we follow him and all the faith in him to do what’s best for the football team.”
Rising and Lisk also have an optimistic approach. They’re focused on getting the top job.
“Absolutely,” Rising said. “If you want to make something happen you’ve got to believe it yourself, right?”
The transfer from Texas, who was a redshirt for the Longhorns, enrolled at Utah in the spring of 2019. He practiced with the team last season and has three years of eligibility remaining.
Getting back to playing in games, Rising acknowledged, is always going to be meaningful. The former California prep star welcomes the addition of an experienced quarterback like Bentley to the mix.
“I like that,” Rising said. “Pressure builds diamonds and that’s what I hope to do — is become a diamond.”
Who ultimately shines the brightest, though, is a continual quest. Rising didn’t think it was going to be decided in spring ball, even if all 15 practices were held.
“I think it absolutely was going to come down to fall,” he said. “There’s a lot of time after spring ball so you never know what can happen during that time. But I always thought it was going to come down to fall.”
It remains to be seen how the relatively tight timetable might alter the offensive scheme. Will it be modified to the individual strengths of whoever becomes the starting quarterback.
“That’s where coach Lud comes in,” Rising said. “He’s a master of figuring out how the offense should operate and I feel like he’ll do whatever is best for the team and what will lead to our success.”
The competition, Rising continued, is enhanced by Lisk’s involvement as well. The former walk-on, now a senior, is drawing a lot of praise.
“He’s a phenomenal quarterback,” Rising said. “I don’t know why people always count him out.”
Lisk is the only candidate to have ever taken a snap for the Utes. He’s appeared in six games over the past three seasons, completing 7 of 9 passes for 52 yards.
“I try to use it to my advantage personally but as far as compared to the other guys then no I wouldn’t really say so,” Lisk said of his extensive time in the program, including a redshirt year in 2016.
“It’s not about the past,” he continued. “It’s about going forward.”
Looking back, however, Lisk said it’s been nothing but a great experience and he’s learned that he belongs.
Competing for the starting job is part of it.
“I think if you don’t you’re a little crazy. You’re holding yourself back,” said Lisk, who stressed the importance of not going in timid or worried about not messing up. “You’ve just got to go out and play and you’ve got to have the confidence that every rep you take — whether it’s with the ones, twos or threes — you know that’s your moment to show this is what I got.”
Lisk is often asked why he’s stuck with the program. He cites the amount of care shown to the players and a personal belief to stick things out after making a commitment.
“I’ve got one more year to do it so I figured why not,” Lisk said.
Whether it gives Lisk a leg up, he isn’t sure. There’s hope to build off his experience at Utah, but at the same time the competition is keen. Lisk, thus, is focused on every day, every throwing session and every lift. His mission is to get better in every phase of the game. That includes watching a lot of film and taking care of himself. He’s mindful of the other competitors.
“It’s fun as a quarterback watching other good quarterbacks perform. It’ll be interesting and fun to learn from both of them and hopefully I can help them out — learn from each other,” Lisk said. “Just knowing those two guys — they can play — so it’s fun getting out there and getting back with guys that really know how to play and how to throw the football well. It’s a lot of fun.”
Lisk noted that Rising knows the game well and has a talented arm. He’s been aware of Bentley’s experience, knowledge and talent for some time. While growing up as a North Carolina State fan, Lisk saw Bentley play against the Wolfpack on TV a time or two.
Flash forward to the present. The abrupt ending of spring ball has compounded a competitive situation at quarterback. Lisk noted that things may have been settled.
“I think if there was a clear-cut one of us coming out and playing a lot better every day then maybe so,” Lisk said. “But we were all feeling pretty good, so I could have easily seen it carrying on. But we didn’t get that chance to see.”
Ute QBs at a glance
Jake Bentley (6-4, 220, Gr.): Transfer from South Carolina. Started 33 games for the Gamecocks.
Drew Lisk (6-1, 205, Sr.): Former walk-on was awarded a scholarship in the summer of 2018.
Cam Rising (6-2, 225, So.): Did not play last season after transferring from Texas.