SALT LAKE CITY — Entering its final Pac-12 season, Utah has a shot to make a little history before leaving for the Big 12.
The 14th-ranked Utes will try to become the first team to earn three straight Pac-12 championships since the conference added them and Colorado in 2011. Oregon was the last to pull that off, winning titles from 2009 to 2011.
“Three-peat would be great,” coach Kyle Whittingham said. “No one has ever done that in the Pac-12. We haven’t been to the (College Football Playoff) yet. There’s a lot of things we have not accomplished that would be a big step for our program and those two are right at the forefront.”
Uncertainly at quarterback potentially stands in the way of a third championship. Starter Cam Rising is still recovering after tearing an ACL during the third quarter of Utah's 35-21 loss to Penn State in the Rose Bowl.
The Utes were judicious with Rising in training camp. He worked on his throwing mechanics and footwork but was careful to avoid sudden movements and change in direction.
Whether Rising will be healthy enough to start before the Utes' season opener Aug. 31 against Florida is unknown. Rising sounded optimistic at Pac-12 media day last month that he would be back in time but was much more guarded when asked recently.
“There’s no timetable,” Rising said. “Talk to the doc and go from there.”
If Rising can’t go, Bryson Barnes would start. Brandon Rose won the backup job in the spring but he is out indefinitely after suffering an undisclosed injury during a team scrimmage.
This isn’t the first time Rising has entered a season rehabbing a major injury. He also missed much of the 2020 season after suffering a shoulder injury against USC.
“It just gets rigorous and it’s kind of tedious because it’s the same thing over and over,” Rising said. “I just got to go attack it each and every day.”
When at full strength, Rising gives Utah’s offense a reliable and dynamic playmaker. Over three seasons, he has passed for 5,572 yards and 46 touchdowns while totaling 953 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground.
Ja’Quinden Jackson made a strong first impression after a late-season move to running back a year ago. Now he enters his first full season at the position as Utah’s lead back.
Jackson switched from quarterback to shore up a backfield depleted by injury and off-the-field turmoil. He immediately flourished in his new role. Over his final six games, Jackson ran for 466 yards and eight touchdowns while averaging 7.5 yards per carry.
“He’s got the skill set and physical tools that you look for in a running back,” Whittingham said. “We all know what he did for us last year. He was a saving grace in the run game for us last year and he is determined to be even better this year.”
Utah has extensive depth and experience to complement Jackson. Micah Bernard is poised to share the backfield load again. Bernard has rushed for 1,132 career yards with the Utes.
The Utes grew even stronger at linebacker this season by adding Stanford transfer Levani Damuni. He racked up 207 tackles, nine tackles for loss and three sacks in 31 career games with the Cardinal.
The Utah native wanted to return home to play his final college season in front of his mom. She sold her engagement ring when he was a child so he and his brothers could afford to play youth football.
“Money was tight and my mom just did that for us kids because she knows we love the game,” Damuni said. “Just sacrificing something that means a lot to her to help her kids is something I’ll always remember and never take for granted every time I step on this field and strap it up.”
Damuni joins a linebacker group that returns Karene Reid and Lander Barton. Reid was named to the preseason All-Pac-12 first team while Barton was a second-team selection. The duo combined for 118 tackles, 17.5 for loss, and 9.5 sacks in 2022.
Utah opens its season against Florida on Aug. 31. The Utes lost to the Gators 29-26 on the road to open their 2022 season.