SALT LAKE CITY — Cam Rising jogged off the field at Rice Eccles Stadium with a broad smile and not a drop of sweat on his head. Rising, Utah’s starting quarterback, didn’t see the field Thursday night as he continues to recover from an offseason ACL surgery, and the Utes didn’t miss him.
In their season opener against Florida — a rematch of last September’s game in which the Gators won 29-26 in Gainesville — the Utes used a two-quarterback system to propel themselves to a 24-11 victory. They’ll head into the second week of the season with a win under their belt and a healthier Rising.
“We want Cam back as soon as we can get him back,” head coach Kyle Whittingham said after the win. “He’s been given more latitude in the last 48 hours, so he’s gonna be able to practice essentially full on next week.”
Whittingham stopped short of saying Rising would be available to play, adding that though the two-year starter has made progress, the decision to keep him out of the opener was one that they delayed as much as they could in hopes that he could be ready.
In Rising’s place, Whittingham and offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig deployed a version of a two-quarterback system in which junior pocket-passer Bryson Barnes started the game while dynamic redshirt freshman Nate Johnson was also featured in special packages that resembled Wildcat formations.
Barnes said he knew about a week and a half ago that he would be starting.
“They’re so different that you essentially have to have two plans when you’re facing them,” said Whittingham, who credited the Utes’ defense for the win. “It adds another dimension.”
While the Utes ran only 53 plays on offense Thursday night, both quarterbacks made the most of their appearances. Barnes, for his part, did it on the first play of Utah’s first drive. After taking his first snap of the year, Barnes dropped back in the pocket and launched a pass that found wide receiver Money Parks in perfect stride for a 70-yard touchdown.
The score sent the already loud Utah crowd into a frenzy and immediately set the tone for the Utes’ win.
“That’s the stuff you talk about when you’re a little kid,” Barnes, a former walk-on who started and won a game against Washington State last season, said of the play. “We knew what we were going to run with our opener. We had an idea of what kind of tendencies they do when they come out.”
That play call spoke volumes about Whittingham’s trust in Barnes as a suitable replacement for Rising. Barnes went on to complete 12 of his 18 pass attempts for 159 yards and a touchdown, and he added a score on the ground as well. The numbers, Whittingham pointed out, weren’t gaudy, but Barnes’ ability to run the offense and not turn the ball over were far more valuable than any shortcomings.
“You can coach them a lot harder when you win than you can after a loss,” Whittingham said of the quarterbacks. “It really couldn’t be a better scenario.”
As effective as Barnes was in the pocket, Johnson was equally prolific out of it. In the Utes’ first drive of the second quarter, Whittingham inserted his other quarterback option into the game, and it didn’t take long for Johnson to show his potential. On a quarterback keeper, Johnson, a track star in high school, danced his way through a flailing Florida defense, showcasing his speed and agility as he dusted a Florida defender on his way to a 27-yard touchdown. He finished the game as the Utes’ leading rusher with 45 yards on six carries and a touchdown.
“He’s electric,” Whittingham said of Johnson. “Struggled with a little bit of ball security a couple times, but he’s got quite a future. You can see he makes guys miss and he looks like he’s the fastest guy in the field every time he’s out there.”
Barnes and Johnson said they felt comfortable playing together, even sometimes on the same drives, and added that Rising has acted as a mentor to both of them throughout the offseason and especially in the lead-up to the first game.
“He’s been telling us everything,” Johnson said. “With him being down, he’s like coaching both of us as well. I mean it’s, it’s really a good thing.”
“Me and Nate having the opportunities to get reps while also having a veteran quarterback sitting in the back,” Barnes said. “It’s not very often you get those types of opportunities with the guy who’s been there.”
Rising might be back at practice this week and could play as soon as Saturday’s tough road game at Baylor, but after Thursday, it’s clear that Whittingham and the Utes have plenty of options under center should they need them as they chase a potential third straight Pac-12 title.