Chip Kelly spoke openly about a starting quarterback dilemma. It probably helped that it wasn’t his.
Unlike UCLA, which has found its man in Dante Moore, Utah faces uncertainty as it faces the No. 22 Bruins (3-0) in its Pac-12 opener on Saturday at Rice-Eccles Stadium and No. 11 Utes come to a showdown of undefeated teams (3-0).
Is this the week that Cam Rising returns from the torn knee ligament that has sidelined him since the Rose Bowl? Or will the Utes continue to rely on redshirt freshman Nate Johnson, who replaced season-opening starter Bryson Barnes to rally his team against Baylor earlier this month?
“Nate Johnson has played really well the last few weeks,” Kelly said Monday, “but I think you have to prepare for all three.”
While Rising has been practicing without restrictions for several weeks, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham recently told reporters that restoring confidence in his knee is the final hurdle he needs to overcome before his season debut, when his veteran quarterback will have confidence in his knee again.
The Utes’ quarterback situation was still unclear Monday, but Whittingham sounded like he was preparing to insert Johnson as the starter for the second straight year.
“A lot more runs with Nate,” Whittingham said when asked how his offense changes without Rising and injured tight end Brant Kuithe, “but he’s starting to throw the ball well.” There will be more of that , what you saw on Saturday [against Weber State]. The more it develops, the more we will expand.”
A former 100-meter champion in the California Interscholastic Federation Central Section during his time at Clovis High, Johnson broke off a 27-yard touchdown run in the season opener against Florida and is the Utes’ second-leading rusher with 148 yards and three touchdowns in 33 carriers. He also completed 22 of 32 passes (68.8%) for 281 yards and one touchdown with no interceptions.
Kelly called Johnson “perhaps one of the fastest quarterbacks in the country” while acknowledging his dual-threat abilities. Still, the coach noted that his team is preparing primarily for the tendencies of Utah offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig, who runs a similar scheme regardless of who is playing quarterback.
If Rising can play for the first time in eight months, it would provide a huge boost to a team seeking its third straight Pac-12 title.
“I think he’s an incredible competitor and a great football player,” Kelly said, “so I think if they agree to let him go, then we’re expecting the full version of Cam Rising.”
The eight-year itch
UCLA hasn’t won at Rice-Eccles Stadium since 2015, although that’s no shame.
Utah has rattled off 16 straight wins at its home stadium since the pandemic-shortened 2020 season and hasn’t lost in front of its fans since a 21-7 loss to Washington on Sept. 15, 2018.
A sellout streak spanning 78 consecutive games since the 2010 season opener has made the Utes’ home field one of the most inhospitable for opponents in the Pac-12.
“This place just has a lot of energy and a great fan base,” said UCLA center Duke Clemens. “They take a lot of pride in their football there, so you can always expect a good, loud crowd when you play at Rice-Eccles.”
After UCLA released a depth chart last week showing that Jaylin Davies had overtaken Devin Kirkwood as the starting cornerback, only to change course with a revised version less than two hours later, Davies actually started against North Carolina Central. Kirkwood also played a significant amount as Kelly was able to field 101 players. “It doesn’t matter to us who takes the first snap of the game,” Kelly said. “We have a lot of guys that can rotate and a lot of guys that can play, and I think one of the strengths of our team is our depth.”… Of those making their collegiate debut, Kelly said he was particularly impressed by true freshman defensive back Kanye Clark, who made a tackle for loss against the Eagles. “We all thought he did a really good job,” Kelly said. … Kelly said wide receiver Titus Mokiao-Atimalala, who hasn’t played this season, would practice Monday, but linebacker Ale Kaho remained unavailable.