2023 Pac-12 Football Preview: As Goes Rising, So Goes Utah

The veteran quarterback's keepers are what make the offensive scheme work so effectively

Posted on June 19, 2023


  By Dane Miller, SuperWest Sports

This Utah preseason football preview is the second of 12 to appear over as many weeks as we count down the days to the start of the Pac-12 season on August 26th.

Pac-12Each preview consists of nine sections: OverviewBest-Case ScenarioWorst-Case ScenarioWhat Should HappenWhat Must HappenGreatest StrengthBiggest ConcernDeciding Factors, and Schedule Analysis.

Nothing is set in stone, however, as rosters and depth charts continue to evolve over the summer.

Utah Utes Fast Facts

2022 Record: 10-4
Head Coach: Kyle Whittingham (154-74 at Utah)
Offensive Coordinator: Andy Ludwig
Defensive Coordinator: Morgan Scalley
Home Stadium: Rice-Eccles Stadium (51,444), Salt Lake City, Utah
Last Conference Title: 2022, Pac-12


Overview
Coming off back-to-back Rose Bowl seasons, Utah has distinguished itself as the leader of the Pac-12.

Head Coach Kyle Whittingham has put together two-straight 10-win seasons while the Utes boast a 26-6 conference record since the start of 2019.

Entering the 2023 campaign seeking their third-straight Pac-12 Championship, one thing is certain: The Conference of Champions runs through Salt Lake City.

Cam Rising injured his ACL in the Rose Bowl | Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP

Still, injury concerns abound for the upcoming season.

Starting quarterback Cam Rising suffered an ACL injury in the Rose Bowl while tight end Brant Kuithe is rehabbing from the same injury sustained earlier in the 2022 season.

But with 14 starters returning and an experienced defensive line, Utah is still the team to beat in the Pac-12.


Best-Case Scenario
Rising enters the opener against Florida with his full range of mobility.

The efficiency of Utah’s offense is highly dependent on the quarterback’s ability to extend plays with his legs and secure short-yardage runs.

Rising averages 6.3 yards per carry over his career and his running ability is the spark that has ignited UU’s Rose Bowl appearances.

If he isn’t able to extend plays on the ground and hit his 6.3 yards per carry mark, offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig’s system is easier to slow down.

Rising scores vs USC | Trent Nelson/AP

Rising has 953 yards rushing and 12 touchdowns on the ground during his time as a Ute. The offensive system itself is only slightly skewed toward the run, though, with a roughly 55/45 run-pass ratio.

But it’s the quarterback keepers that make the scheme work so effectively.

Utah was No. 11 in the country in scoring offense last year, posting 38.6 points per game, while its rushing offense was also 11th in the nation in yards per game.

For the Utes to return to a New Year’s Six Bowl, Rising must have the same range of mobility that he had before his injury. If he does, then another Pac-12 Championship and legacy bowl appearance should be in the cards.


Worst Case Scenario
Rising isn’t completely healed by the start of the year and the season begins with back-to-back losses to Florida and Baylor.

Vele

Despite having one of the strongest defenses in the Pac-12 once again, the Utes aren’t able to beat USC in Los Angeles and fall to Washington in Seattle.

The result is an 8-win year with close victories at Oregon State and at home against Oregon.

Outside of Rising’s hampered mobility, the wide receiver unit remains an issue.

Devaughn Vele is a talented weapon and Money Parks puts up respectable numbers, but the group is comparatively outmatched by the units of Washington, USC, and even Arizona.

Ludwig

And in the event of Rising’s reduced mobility, the relative weakness at the receiver position becomes an outright problem.

Ludwig’s passing scheme is more geared toward tight ends, yet those plays are arguably effective due to the quarterback’s threat to run along with the QB’s mobility in and out of the pocket.

Without the same agile Rising, the entire system gets somewhat exposed and the Utes fall short of expectations.


What Should Happen
Rising should recover from his injury and return to his normal self.

It may take a few games, but the Senior quarterback should be the same agile decision-maker that has brought Utah to two straight Rose Bowls.

Boosted by one of the nation’s top offensive lines, the Utes’ offense shouldn’t miss a beat.

But it’s the defense that really shines through. With what might be a Top 10 defensive line, Utah should improve its 21.43 points allowed per game.

Arguably skewed due to the prolific offenses within the Pac-12, the Utes were a somewhat underwhelming 27th in the FBS in points allowed per game last year.

As a comparison, National Champion Georgia averaged 14.27 points allowed per game while Semifinalist Michigan gave up 16.07 per night.

S Cole Bishop grabs a fumble vs Ohio St | Adam Cairns/USA TODAY Sports

The Pac-12 did have four of the Top 10 scoring offenses in the country, though, and the Utes played three of them. But the 21.43 points allowed per game isn’t going to cut it.

On the bright side, defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley enters the 2023 season loaded with weapons.

Safety Cole Bishop, cornerback JaTravis Broughton, and Ole Miss four-star transfer corner Miles Battle should lead the way in the secondary.

While at linebacker, four-star Stanford transfer Levani Damuni should mesh well with returning star Karene Reid and sophomore Lander Barton.

Along the line, four-star BYU transfer Logan Fano should add to the arsenal of Van Fillinger, Junior Tafuna, and Simote Pepa.

In other words, the Utes are stacked on defense and should take a couple of steps forward in 2023.


What Must Happen
The bar is high in Salt Lake City.

After back-to-back Pac-12 Championships with two-straight Rose Bowl appearances, the expectations have changed.

An invitation to the Playoff is the next logical step and the standards are arguably pinned to reaching that goal.

To do so, Whittingham needs to hit a home run with one of his freshmen. Programs can be changed by a star first-year player that bursts onto the national scene.

Such an occurrence goes against Utah’s reputation as a player development program and the experienced depth that Whittingham has built.

Yet, to take the next step he needs an immediate impact freshman.

The Utes have eight four-star freshmen that have the potential to fill the role.

2023 4-star RB John Randle Jr. | Nathan Alspaw/247Sports

Two of them are offensive linemen, one is a defensive lineman, and two more are cornerbacks. Freshman linemen rarely are ready to see significant playing time their first year and Utah is arguably set at corner.

That leaves wide receiver Mikey Matthews and running back John Randle Jr. as the primary candidates.

Returning running backs Micah Bernard and Ja’Quinden Jackson are strong weapons, but if Randle Jr. is able to emerge as the best out of the three, Whittingham has a potential game-changer.

At the same time, Matthews enters Salt Lake City with everything to gain. Whittingham has brought in transfer receivers Mycah Pittman from Florida State and Emery Simmons from Indiana.

But if Matthews quickly emerges as a threat, one of the primary weaknesses of Utah’s offense could be strengthened.

At the end of the day, Utah needs someone to step up out of its freshman class to push the program to the Playoff.


Greatest Strength
Experience and depth throughout the roster is Utah’s calling card in 2023.

Kuithe

For example, tight end Brant Kuithe gets most of the attention at the TE spot, yet backup Thomas Yassmin is a substantially underrated threat who could have the most productive season of his career.

Offensive players Rising, Bernard, and Vele have all played in two Rose Bowls, while defensive stars Bishop, Tafuna, and Reid have as well.

Add in the immediate impact transfers on defense in DL Fano, LB Damuni, and CB Miles, and Utah appears to be the most complete defense in the Pac-12.

Even if the team falters early in the year, the culture in the Utah program has the power to rally the team back to the top of the Conference.


Biggest Concern
There are arguably no flaws in Utah’s defense, shifting the focus to the offense.

The offensive line has been a strength over the last few years and three starters return. That still leaves two spots needing to be filled. While not the biggest concern, the two additional pieces are worth monitoring.

Parks

The problem, though, remains the wide receivers.

The scheme itself doesn’t lend itself to star wideouts, but Utah would be a different program with the WR corps Washington and USC have.

Vele and Parks are strong options, yet there doesn’t seem to be a big-play threat.

Tellingly, in the two years that the Utes have made the Rose Bowl, no Utah wide receivers have been selected to the Pac-12’s All-Conference Teams. Not First Team or Second Team. Not in 2021 or 2022.

That’s a problem and arguably the greatest flaw in Utah’s program.

To become a Playoff-caliber team, UU must improve its wide receiver play. And until it does so, the WR unit remains its biggest concern.


Deciding Factors
Apart from Rising’s mobility, the chemistry of the offensive line is a deciding factor. The two new starters must mesh well with the returners and keep Rising protected.

Bernard

The production of the linebackers will be another factor and should be one of Utah’s strengths.

But it’s the efficiency of the UU running backs that might make the biggest difference. Jackson and Bernard are each strong runners that figure to take full advantage of their opportunities.

If Jackson becomes one of the top RB’s in the Pac-12, the ceiling of Utah’s season changes.


Schedule Analysis
2023 Utah Utes Schedule

Aug. 31 vs Florida
Sept. 9 at Baylor
Sept. 16 vs Weber State
Sept. 23 vs UCLA
Sept. 29 at Oregon State
Oct. 14 vs California
Oct. 21 at USC
Oct. 28 vs Oregon
Nov. 4 vs Arizona State
Nov. 11 at Washington
Nov. 18 at Arizona
Nov. 26 vs Colorado

The season begins with a game against Florida in Salt Lake City.

Rising’s health will be in question, but the Utes should defend Rice-Eccles and secure the win.

The following week features a battle against Baylor on the road. The Bears are projected to finish in the top half of the Big 12, but a Utah win is arguably expected.

After a get-right game against Weber State, Pac-12 play begins with UCLA. Whittingham’s defense should stifle the Bruins’ offense enough to post the victory.

The following week features a compelling game on the road to Oregon State.

The Beavers have built a respectable program that in many ways mirrors the Utes. It would not be surprising to see OSU as a trendy upset pick that week.

The Utes then host California in a game Whittingham’s team should win by double-digits.

usc logoThe next four weeks of the season are challenging. Utah travels to USC for a rivalry game that likely ends in a loss. UU then hosts Oregon in what should result in a close Utah victory.

Arizona State then comes to Salt Lake City in what should be a win for UU.

But Whittingham’s team then travels to Seattle for a showdown with Washington. Scalley’s defense will be put to the test and UW will likely be the favorite.

The year ends with what should be back-to-back wins against Arizona and Colorado.

All told, a 10-2 mark is arguably the ceiling while an 8-4 campaign is within the realm of possibility. Meeting in the middle, a 9-3 record is the reasonable minimum expectation.




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