This spring likely will be a lot more about figuring out how to fit pieces into the right places for the Utes, whereas last spring the question marks centered around whether they had enough pieces to rebuild the offensive line and defensive backfield.
While several key figures must be replaced on both sides of the ball this season, such as wide receivers Darrn Carrington II and Raelon Singleton as well as defensive linemen Kylie Fitts, Lowell Lotulelei and Filipo Mokofisi, Utah returns 18 players who’ve previously started, including eight on offense in the second season under offensive coordinator Troy Taylor.
Utah’s 15-session spring practice slate opened on Monday afternoon with new faces such as highly-touted quarterback recruit Jack Tuttle in the mix along with a bevy of returners with sights set on retaining starting jobs or stepping up into bigger roles than previous seasons.
“It’s very apparent to me that the offense is much further ahead than we were last year, which – you’d expect that,” Utes coach Kyle Whittingham said. “It’s not a surprise, but it’s good to see us in a much better place right now as opposed to last year.”
Whittingham noticed a significant difference in the offense’s performance on the first day as compared to last season. He and Taylor both pointed to an improved understanding of assignments, playing at a better tempo and a sharpness evident on the first day this spring.
The Utes return starting quarterback Tyler Huntley, a rising junior, while redshirt freshman Jason Shelley and Tuttle, a four-star recruit from California who graduated high school early, will push him. Last season proved that Taylor isn’t afraid to shake up the offense and name an underclassman the starter over an incumbent. Huntley won the job over Troy Williams.
However, Huntley does go into this spring as the starter for the first time in his career. He’ll also have a body of work to build on despite missing three games with injuries.
“It feels great just to know that I had a great time in the system, and I’m just bettering myself in the system and growing in the system,” Huntley said. “It feels good to know that the ceiling for this offense is going to be great.”
Defensively, the Utes have added a lot of depth at all three levels through recruiting. Many of those players won’t join the program until the summer. At least at the start of spring practice, returning players figure to fill the holes created by graduation on the defensive line and linebacker.
“We’ve got some new guys, but in terms of rebuilding we’ve got guys that played a bunch last year,” Utes defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley said. “We’ve got Leki Fotu, Hauati Pututau, Pita Tongs, guys that have been in the system. Maxs Tupai has been with for a couple years now. We’re not really rebuilding. It’s getting those guys opportunities, having them show what they can do. … In terms of a full rebuild, we’re not doing that.”
Scalley described the task on the defensive line as a cyclical progression. Just as Mokofisi and Lotulelei took over for the previous mainstays such as Tenny Palepoi and Lotulelei’s older brother, Star.
“Now it’s their time,” Scalley said.
Chase Hansen, who moves from strong safety, and Cody Barton give the Utes a pair of seniors ready to take over for starting linebackers Kavika Luafatasaga and Sunia Tauteoli. Donovan Thompson, a junior, also started five games last season.
Defensive end Bradlee Anae returns after winning a starting spot last season as a sophomore. Fotu, a 6-foot-5, 317-pound junior, will anchor the defensive tackle group. Fotu played in all 13 games last season with two starts. He’s the heir apparent to Lotulelei and Mokofisi, who both started games for the past four years.
“I think the only thing that’s different is not having their presence, physically, here,” Fotu said of Lotulelie and Mokofisi. “The things that they taught us through my first and second year here, that’s still with us, the way we roll and how we play out here. Little things are different, not having them, but it still feels the same.”