Chip Kelly freely spoke about a starting quarterback dilemma. It probably helped that it wasn’t his.
Unlike UCLA, which has found its guy in Dante Moore, Utah faces uncertainty heading into a showdown of unbeaten teams Saturday at Rice-Eccles Stadium in the Pac-12 opener for the No. 22 Bruins (3-0) and No. 11 Utes (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 go with redshirt freshman Nate Johnson, who replaced season-opening starter Bryson Barnes to rally his team against Baylor earlier this month?
“Nate Johnson played really well in the last couple of weeks,” Kelly said Monday, “but I think you have to prepare for all three of them.”
While Rising has been practicing without limitations for several weeks, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham recently told reporters that his veteran quarterback regaining confidence in his knee was the final hurdle he needed to clear before making his season debut.
The Utes’ quarterback situation remained unresolved as of Monday, but Whittingham sounded like someone preparing to go with Johnson as his starter for a second consecutive game.
“A lot more runs with Nate,” Whittingham said when asked how his offense changes without Rising and injured tight end Brant Kuithe, “but he is starting to throw the ball well. It’ll be more of what you saw Saturday [against Weber State]. The more he evolves, the more we’ll expand.”
A former 100-meter champion in the California Interscholastic Federation’s Central Section while at Clovis High, Johnson broke off a 27-yard touchdown run against Florida in the season opener and has emerged as the Utes’ second-leading rusher with 148 yards and three touchdowns in 33 carries. He’s also completed 22 of 32 passes (68.8%) for 281 yards and one touchdown with no interceptions.
Kelly called Johnson “maybe one of the fastest quarterbacks in the country” while also acknowledging his dual-threat capabilities. Yet the coach noted that his team is mostly preparing for the tendencies of Utah offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig, who runs a similar scheme no matter who is playing quarterback.
If Rising is able to play for the first time in eight months, it would provide a massive boost to a team seeking its third consecutive Pac-12 title.
“I think he’s an unbelievable competitor and a great football player,” Kelly said, “so I think if they declare him ready to go, then we expect the full version of Cam Rising.”
The eight-year itch
UCLA has not won at Rice-Eccles Stadium since 2015, though there’s little shame in that.
Utah has rolled off 16 consecutive victories at its home stadium going back to the pandemic-shortened 2020 season and has not lost in front of its fans since a 21-7 loss to Washington on Sept. 15, 2018.
A sellout streak that spans 78 consecutive games going back to the 2010 season opener has made the Utes’ home field one of the most inhospitable to opponents in the Pac-12.
“That place, they just have a lot of energy, they have a great fan base,” UCLA center Duke Clemens said. “They take a lot of pride in their football over there, so you can always expect a good, loud crowd when you go play at Rice-Eccles.”
After UCLA released a depth chart last week showing that Jaylin Davies had overtaken Devin Kirkwood as a starting cornerback, only to reverse course less than two hours later with a revised version, Davies did start against North Carolina Central. Kirkwood also played a significant amount, as Kelly was able to use 101 players. “Who takes the first snap of the game is really inconsequential in our minds,” Kelly said. “We have a bunch of guys who can rotate and a bunch of guys who can play, and I think one of the strengths of our team is our depth.” … Among those making their college debuts, Kelly said he was particularly impressed with true freshman defensive back Kanye Clark, who made a tackle for loss against the Eagles. “We all thought he did a really nice job,” Kelly said. … Kelly said wide receiver Titus Mokiao-Atimalala, who has not played this season, would practice Monday but linebacker Ale Kaho remained unavailable.