The question marks won’t be as widespread for the Utah football team going into spring practice as they were as camp started before last season. However, a few units must begin the process of filling in holes left by graduation and other departures.
Utah begins its 15-session practice schedule Monday at the Spence and Cleone Eccles Football Center. The schedule includes a week off for spring break, and concludes with the Red-White Game in Rice-Eccles Stadium on April 14.
Utah’s outdoor practice sessions will be open to the public. Sessions moved indoors due to inclement weather will be closed due to space limitations.
“As far as position groups, specifically, wide receiver is a position that we need to establish a pecking order,” Utes coach Kyle Whittingham said this week. “We lost out top two receivers from last year as far as productivity, so there will be opportunities as far as guys to step up and earn jobs there. The offensive line is much more solidified than it was at this point last year. …
“Tight end, there’s a lot of turnover there. We lost our top two guys in Harrison [Handley] and Siale [Fakailoatonga] so there’s some opportunity for some young guys to step up and play their way into a job. The defensive line, same thing. We had those top three seniors leave with Kylie [Fitts], Lowell [Lotulelei] and Flip [Mokofisi], so there’s a lot of opportunity there.”
Going into last season, the Utes were overhauling their offensive line and defensive backfield, battles at quarterback and running back were ongoing, and offensive coordinator Troy Taylor had to install a new system.
This spring, 18 players with starting experience return from a team that went 7-6 with a season-ending win over West Virginia in the Heart of Dallas Bowl. That group includes dual-threat quarterback Tyler Huntley, 1,000-yard rusher Zack Moss and four starters on the offensive line, as well as largely intact secondary.
Defensive backs Philip Afia, Marquise Blair and Jaylon Johnson will not take part in spring drills due to injuries, while Chase Hansen appears poised to move from safety to linebacker on a full-time basis. Hansen enters spring atop the depth chart at “rover linebacker.”
“Going into spring he will be a linebacker,” Whittingham said of Hansen. “That’s what he’s been working at, studying film and getting schooled-up on that this winter. He is cleared by the trainers. He’s good to go. There’s no limitations. We’re going to be careful with him. With his past [injury] history, we don’t want to get him beat up in spring, but we’re he is looking to potentially play a different position he’s got to get the reps and get the experience.”
Offensive linemen Johnny Capra and Darren Paulo, running back Devonta’e Henry-Cole and wide receiver Bryan Thompson will also miss spring practice due to injuries. Wide receiver Britain Covey, recently returned from an LDS Church mission, will not take part in spring practice. Running back Armand Shyne and defensive back Tyrone Smith return after missing last season with injuries; Smith is the top choice at left corner opposite Julian Blackmon with Johnson out and Casey Hughes transferring.
Three key areas to watch
Defensive line • Leki Fotu played a lot last season, and Whittingham describes him as a player with the potential to be “special,” while Bradlee Anae moves over to left end after having started last season on the right side. Maxs Tupai leads the group vying for the other defensive end spot, but he’ll be pushed by returners Davir Hamilton, John Penisini, Caleb Repp, mid-season addition Mika Tafua and junior college transfer Rex Jordan. Former Oregon State coach and longtime Utah assistant Gary Andersen re-joined the program as associate head coach and will work primarily with defensive tackles while Lewis Powell will coach defensive ends.
Wide receiver • Darren Carrington, probably the best wide receiver of the Whittingham era, is preparing for the NFL Draft. The team’s second-leading receiver from last season, Raelon Singleton, will pursue a graduate transfer for “family reasons.” Four-star prospect Solomon Enis and highly-touted Miami product Terrell Perriman will not be on campus for spring practice, nor will Covey. That leaves Siaosi Mariner (formerly Siaosi Wilson), Demari Simpkins and Samson Nacua as the top three returning receivers. Mariner led the group with 393 yards receiving last season, while Simpkins and Nacua had 29 catches each. Bronson Boyd sat out last season as redshirt after transferring from Texas Tech; the coaching staff was impressed with his performance on the scout team last season.
Quarterback • Huntley showed how dynamic he could be in his first season as the starter. However, he must gain weight so he can last through the season, having missed three games in 2017. Jason Shelley, another dual-threat QB. enters the picture after a redshirt season, and Jack Tuttle graduated early and comes into the program with as much of a pedigree as any quarterback in program history. Spring practices will be the first time the staff will be allowed to do any on-field work with Tuttle, who Whittingham says will compete right away.