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Rising's status remains mystery days before Florida game

Posted at 4:29 PM, Aug 29, 2023

SALT LAKE CITY — Cam Rising’s status remains a mystery heading into No. 14 Utah’s first game of the season.

Rising is listed as the starting quarterback on this week’s depth chart ahead of Thursday’s opener against Florida. But, he is actually a game-day decision. Rising has been rehabilitating a torn ACL suffered January in the Rose Bowl and was limited in August practices.

Rising has said that the uncertainty over whether he would play didn't affect his preparation.

“Doesn’t do a damn thing,” Rising said. “Gotta go out there and prepare just like I would any other game.”

Bryson Barnes and Nate Johnson will have a chance to lead the offense if Rising isn't cleared to play.

Barnes, listed second on the depth chart, filled in for an injured Rising each of the past two Rose Bowl games. He made his first career start against Washington State in 2022, throwing for 175 yards on 17-of-27 passing in a 21-17 win over the Cougars.

Johnson, Utah’s No. 3 quarterback, will likely be used in wildcat packages if Barnes starts.

“You’ll see Nate Johnson in this game, no matter what happens,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said.

Florida, for certain, will debut a new quarterback. Wisconsin transfer Graham Mertz joined the Gators in the offseason and won the starting job in training camp.

Mertz started 32 games for Wisconsin over three seasons. He tallied 5,405 career yards and 38 career touchdowns while completing 60% of his passes.

“That’s one of my strengths, definitely being an accurate passer,” Mertz said. “I think any time I’m holding that ball, I’m going to put it where I want to put it based on the look. That takes time. That takes practice. That takes more than just throwing a football.”

Mertz’s experience should bolster a Gators offense that returns Montrell Johnson Jr. and Trevor Etienne in the backfield. Johnson and Etienne combined for 1,560 yards and 16 touchdowns on the ground last season. They were one of 15 FBS running back duos to rush for more than 700 yards apiece.

DEFENSIVE EVOLUTION

Missed tackles were a key element of Utah’s three-point loss to Florida in 2022. Youth and inexperience on defense were factors in the Utes struggling with Florida’s speed at the skill positions. Utah had 29 missed tackles against the Gators, many resulting in big plays in decisive moments.

The Utes are in a much different spot defensively this season. Ten starters return on defense, headlined by preseason All-Pac-12 first-team selections Junior Tafuna, Karene Reid and Cole Bishop.

“I know, especially on the defense, we want this one back,” Bishop said. “We had a pretty rough game last year. At least for me, this one is circled.”

EGUAKUN QUESTIONABLE

Florida listed starting center Kingsley Eguakun as questionable. Eguakun hasn't fully participated in practices since injuring an ankle on Aug. 16.

“He’s making progress. He’s not quite there yet,” Florida coach Billy Napier said. “We’re always very transparent and I think questionable would be the right description.”

Eguakun is the only returning full-time starter on the Gators’ offensive line. Jake Slaughter has taken first-team snaps at center and will likely slide into the starting spot if Eguakun doesn't play.

RARE ROAD TRIP

Florida will open a season with a true road game for the first time since playing at Miami in 1987. It will also be the first true road game against a non-SEC opponent since playing at Syracuse in 1991.

Hosting Florida will be a milestone for Utah. The Gators are the first SEC team to travel to Salt Lake City to face the Utes.

“We’ve made great strides and inroads into our national brand,” Whittingham said. “It’s still a work in progress, but (a home game with an SEC team) doesn’t happen if our brand hasn’t strengthened throughout the years.”

CATCH STREAK

Florida wide receiver Ricky Pearsall enters the season having caught a pass in 28 consecutive games. Pearsall led Florida with 661 receiving yards on 33 receptions last season, a year after transferring from Arizona State. Of those catches, 27 went for first downs and 28 netted double-digit yardage.