All eyes were on No. 7 as the Utah Utes opened up spring practice on Tuesday afternoon.

After missing the entirety of the 2023 season while rehabbing from surgery to repair his torn ACL, meniscus, MPFL and MCL, Utah quarterback Cam Rising was back on the field throwing touchdown passes.

“Pretty surreal. Just been a long time coming and just fired up to be back with the guys. It was great and just, yeah, phenomenal day,” Rising said in his first post-practice interview with local media since August.

Rising played well in the 20 or so minutes that the media saw outside at the Spence and Cleone Eccles Football Center, throwing against Utah’s defense in a consistent rain.

He threw a touchdown pass to tight end Brant Kuithe — himself returning after missing most of the 2022 season after tearing his ACL and meniscus, then the entire 2023 campaign while rehabbing — who made a leaping grab in the end zone.

That connection looked like old times for the duo, who are entering their seventh season of college football.

“It felt good. Got up a little bit. I didn’t think I could. I’m getting old,” Kuithe joked. “It felt good just to be back, and just excited. We have 14 more practices to go and just can’t wait.”

The players were in jerseys and shorts — no pads — and there was no tackling, of course, but it’s an encouraging sign for Ute fans that Rising ran multiple designed quarterback keepers during the media viewing portion of practice and looked good while running.

“I’m pretty dang close (to 100%),” Rising said. “Yeah, I don’t know what exactly a hundred percent is always, but yeah, I think I’m close to it.”

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said Rising has been cleared for “everything” this spring.

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Rising’s presence is a welcome sight for an offense that was dreadful without him last season, ranking 98th in Division I football in points per game (23.2), 92nd in total yards per game (348.4) and 117th in passing yards per game (165.8).

There will still be hurdles for the veteran quarterback to clear while reacclimating to the game — being tackled and making cuts while being chased by defenders, for example. While Whittingham said that Rising is cleared to be tackled, obviously the signal caller will not be touched by Utah defenders.

While Utah’s hope is that Rising finishes the season healthy after last season’s backup quarterback situation, a big subplot of spring (and fall) camp is finding a backup who can guide the offense if Rising were to miss any time.

Bryson Barnes (vs. Cal, USC, Arizona State and the first half of the Washington game) and Nate Johnson (end of Baylor game) had their bright spots in 2023, but the lack of a consistent passing game was magnified as the season wore on, with the Utes finishing the season losing four of their last six contests.

In the 20 or so minutes of media viewing Tuesday, Brandon Rose and former four-star Corner Canyon quarterback Isaac Wilson took reps.

This is a make-or-break year for Rose, who is entering his third season at Utah. He looked like he was on track to be QB2 when fall camp started last year, but he suffered an injury during an August scrimmage and missed the better part of two months.

Then even when he was back to good health, he never saw the field for Utah, with Whittingham saying postgame after the Las Vegas Bowl loss that Rose wasn’t ready for game action yet.

“He just is not ready to do that yet. He’s just not grasped the offense and decision-making,” Whittingham said back in December. “He’s still in the learning stage — his learning stage — and he’s got a lot of things going for him.”

As the quarterback with the most experience at Utah among the backups, Rose is the favorite to win the QB2 job as spring ball opens up, but the race will likely drag on through fall camp.

He threw some good balls on Tuesday, including a throw on the run and a nice ball to Money Parks for a touchdown, but he also threw an interception. The arm talent is there for Rose, and with another offseason of experience learning Andy Ludwig’s offense under his belt, it’s his job to lose.

Wilson handed the ball off in the majority of his time in the viewing period, and on the first pass the media saw, threw an interception — no surprise there for a freshman in his first spring practice against Utah’s defense.

On his next series, he shook off the pick and threw a touchdown pass to Daidren Zipperer.

Participating in spring football is going to be big for Wilson’s development, especially getting to learn from Rising. Utah didn’t secure a transfer quarterback commitment as spring ball opened, so the backup quarterback race in the spring will be between Rose, Wilson and Luke Bottari.

“Cam’s the guy. He’s taking every rep for the ones. Right now it’s a split between Isaac and Luke Bottari and Brandon Rose rotating and taking up the No. 2 reps and 3, just kind of a rotation,” Whittingham said.

Other observations from Utah’s first day of spring practice

  • It’s going to be a great competition in the running backs room this spring and fall among Micah Bernard, Jaylon Glover, Mike Mitchell, John Randle Jr., Dijon Stanley and Anthony Woods. Bernard, who missed all but two games last season with an injury, Randle Jr. and Glover ran well during the media viewing session, but Mitchell stole the show. The 6-foot, 211-pound back has the size to punish opponents and looks so far like he’s made the second-year jump.
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“Mike Mitchell. He’s not wearing pads today, but he did some really good things. … He’s a guy that I think has a bunch of upside,” Whittingham said.

  • Whittingham singled out USC transfer wide receiver Dorian Singer as the furthest ahead of any of the new transfer receivers. Singer arrives at Utah with a lot of experience, having played two seasons at Arizona and one at USC. He could slot in as WR1 for Utah.

“Dorian Singer looked really good today. He’s probably the furthest ahead of any of them. He’s got the most experience,” Whittingham said.

  • Utah is replacing two starting offensive linemen, Keaton Bills and Sataoa Laumea, this season. Whittingham indicated after day one that Spencer Fano played right tackle with Caleb Lomu at left tackle. Michael Mokofisi is at one guard spot, Tanoa Togiai at the other and Kolinu’u Faaiu at center.

“We feel like much like last year we’re going to probably have nine, 10, maybe 11 guys that we can run with,” Whittingham said.

  • Whittingham said Georgia Tech transfer cornerback Kenan Johnson stood out today. Johnson is in the running for Utah’s open starting outside cornerback spot.
  • Tao Johnson is making the switch from nickel back to safety as Utah looks to fill two starting spots following Sione Vaki and Cole Bishop’s NFL Draft declarations, while Smith Snowden was at nickel back during the media viewing of practice.

“He looked really natural there today and did a great job,” Whittingham said of Johnson.

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