Gold: Utah's bountiful return changes 2023 Pac-12 picture
Talk about stealing the thunder.
They came in, one after another, tweet after tweet confirming what Utah fans had been holding out hope for. Ultimately, the bounty was grander than they could have ever imagined. Kyle Whittingham must be grinning from ear to ear.
On college football’s biggest day, Utah dropped bomb after bomb, in hopes that they’ll be dropping bomb after bomb on the field next year.
- Brant Kuithe, the Utes’ star veteran tight end who missed much of the season? Back.
- Devaughn Vele, Utah’s lone deep outside threat and leading receiver in 2022? Returning.
- Cam Rising, the team’s emotional soul and one of the country’s top quarterbacks? Sign ’em up.
- Thomas Yassmin, the air apparent to Dalton Kincaid as the Utes’ towering No. 2 tight end? Laced.
In the span of less than 5 hours Monday, any doubt about Utah’s passing game dissipated.
Yes, Georgia was the biggest winner on college football’s biggest day of the year.
But the Utes aren’t too far behind.
The first major get was the worst-kept secret in Salt Lake City.
Third time’s the charm. pic.twitter.com/DE6fhNbtR3
— Brant kuithe (@Brantkuithe14) January 9, 2023
Kuithe has long been rumored to be considering a return for 2023, maybe as far back as his 2022 campaign was ruined. After entering the year with massive expectations following 3 straight all-conference second-team nods, he was off to a great start, scoring in each of his first 3 games while averaging better than 60 yards per game.
In a Week 4 win at Arizona State, though, Kuithe suffered a torn ACL that cost him the rest of the year. And yet he still earned all-league honorable mention honors.
In his place, Kincaid emerged as the Utes’ primary passing threat, finishing with 890 yards and 8 touchdowns.
With Kincaid off to the NFL and Yassmin also announcing his return, Whittingham will have the talent to run his favored 2-tight-end sets, keeping Utah dangerous up the seams.
One last ride pic.twitter.com/0X8Lzs2p3D
— Thomas Yassmin (@TYassmin21) January 9, 2023
If Kuithe’s return offers expected results, Yassmin’s decision to come back is more of a wild card.
When Kincaid was hobbled in December’s Pac-12 title game, Yassmin provided valuable minutes, catching 2 passes for 81 yards, including a 60-yard lumbering touchdown play. He had just one reception in the Rose Bowl, but it went for a 1-yard touchdown. The Australian former rugby player, who stands 6-5, 251 pounds, knows how to box out.
He’ll return as one of the top red-zone threats in the country.
But everyone who watched Utah this season knew they’d need a better deep passing game, and that’s where Vele comes in.
The sophomore wideout had a nice progression from 2021, increasing his production from 389 yards on 23 receptions to 695 yards on 55 catches. He also added 5 touchdowns after having just 1 in 2021.
Another offseason to sharpen his game should pay dividends for Vele, who emerged as a consistent threat this year, catching 5 or more passes in 8 games.
He saved the best for last, though, hitting the century mark for the first time in the Rose Bowl with 5 receptions for 100 yards.
POV: you see another year of Utah Football in your future 👀
Devaughn Vele is coming back for the 2023 season 🙌 pic.twitter.com/ipCqmV7dC5
— Utah Football (@Utah_Football) January 9, 2023
None of that even remotely matters if not for the biggest news of the day, the return of Cameron “Bad Moon” Rising.
In a league jam-packed with quarterback talent, Rising adds to the riches, returning after a season in which he threw for 3,034 yards and 26 touchdowns, completed 65 percent of his passes and finished 32nd nationally in total QBR. That’s after being named first-team all-conference in 2021, when he passed for 2,493 yards and 20 scores with just 5 interceptions after taking over as starter in Week 4.
Undoubtedly the major factor in Rising’s return is the sour taste in his mouth at the end of each of the last two seasons. After suffering a head injury that knocked him out of the 2022 Rose Bowl, a close loss to Ohio State, he suffered a knee injury in the Utes’ 35-21 2023 Rose Bowl loss to Penn State last week.
“Yeah, breaks my heart,” Whittingham said after the injury. “He’s such a warrior and such a fierce competitor. He’ll be back; I can promise you that, from the injury. Hopefully he’s back with us. That’s to be determined. But he’ll work his way back. It almost seemed we lost a little bit of our mojo when that happened. We had a little bit of a deflation on our team, and that’s not the right way to respond. We needed to respond better than we did, and it’s unfortunate that we didn’t — that we had the drop-off that we did.”
And that’s why Rising’s return is so big for the Utes, whenever it happens.
Bryson Barnes hasn’t looked like an all-conference player when pressed into action. Freshman Nate Johnson, a 4-star recruit and the No. 16 quarterback prospect in his class, has plenty of raw talent but needs more time in the system. No one else on the roster has any playing time nor real prospects of becoming starter.
For Utah’s 2023 Pac-12 title chances, it was Rising or bust.
— Utah Football (@Utah_Football) January 9, 2023
And now he returns as a 2-time Pac-12 championship winner, one of only a handful of quarterbacks who can say that in conference history.
As we saw this season, he doesn’t have to be the most prolific passer in the Pac-12 to lead Utah to great heights. But with 3 of his top options now back in the fold for 2023, the sky is the limit.