August is a time of optimism — and, in some cases, worry — for college football teams, as it becomes apparent how players are really feeling about themselves, edging through the back half of camps.
A few weeks in, they can see the talent around them, or the lack of it.
Here’s the truth about what the Utah Utes see and know: They have a clear view of, a clear idea that they’re going to be good, better than most teams coming off a 7-6 season. That was just a tee-up and a practice swing at what’s coming next. The coaches know it, the players know it, and they all carry themselves as though they, indeed, are fully aware.
Not to the point of being obnoxious or presumptuous about it, though.
And, for them, that’s a good thing.
They’re not overcooking anything, at least not on the whole, by making all kinds of wild predictions about how unbelievably great they’ll be. That’s a sure indication of insecurity — and trouble. Quest for Perfection, anyone? No. Demari Simpkins did say a while back he thinks he’s the best receiver in the country, but that could be dismissed as a moment of temporary insanity.
Most every other Ute is completely sane.
When they are asked to describe what they’ve got, their answers hover more over a combo-pack of self-assurance and excitement, as though the Pac-12 doesn’t really fully grasp what’s coming at Rice-Eccles this time around. Opponents might kind of know about Zack Moss and a rough defense, a tough-minded attitude, the typical expectations for a Utah team that Pac-12 teams have come to respect.
But this is different.
The Utes are still young, and emerging with a buoyancy that is likely to surprise people, even, especially, with a difficult schedule that has Utah not skipping any of the league’s best outfits.
“The top reasons for optimism, I’d say, No. 1, is we feel like our talent level throughout the roster is better than it’s ever been since we joined the Pac-12, from an athleticism standpoint,” Kyle Whittingham said. “And, No. 2, their work ethic. This is a very focused group that is dialed in. They’re ready to go to work every single day. I really like this team. I’m excited to watch them play.”
Said offensive coordinator Troy Taylor: “We’ve got a great team, great players. They’re well coached and they work really hard. That about covers it.”
He complimented the quarterbacks and the receivers, saying the passing game is considerably improved over a season ago, and that an area some might have thought would be a weakness among the Utes — those receivers — might turn out to be a strength.
Taylor got no argument there from Britain Covey, a receiver who has returned from an LDS mission after a stellar freshman season: “We’ve got eight guys who will play, eight guys who will be threats, all of them with different strengths. When you can spread the field like that, you can’t double anyone, and you’ve got running backs like Zack and Armand [Shyne], it’s going to open the field, there’s going to be a lot of space. And we have deep threats — Demari, who has worked on his speed, Jaylen Dixon, who is a blazing speedster, Bronson Boyd, and I love to go deep, too. We’ve surprised even the team with that. I love it.”
He added: “Everybody knows about our special teams — best kicker in the land, best punter in the land. And … the best-looking slot receiver in the land.”
Covey laughed when he said that last part, happy to make fun of himself for allowing a boast that wasn’t, at least on the first two counts, any kind of exaggeration.
No need to lay it on too thick.
But, unable to contain his enthusiasm, Covey threw the defensive backs into the mix: “There’s not going to be a secondary I face this season that’s better than what I go up against every day in practice.”
Julian Blackmon, one of those defensive backs, kept that compliment in perspective: “We have talent, but it’s up to us to actually do what has to be done. Man, we’ve got some depth here. Everyone putting themselves in position to make plays, understanding different route concepts that they can stop. I love watching my guys play and grow. I’m excited to see what we can do.”
Pressed to say whether the Utes are win-the-Pac-12 good, Blackmon said he believes they are, but quickly put that whole matter in its proper place, saying: “It’s up to us to do the work necessary to make it happen.”
As for the personality of the defense, Blackmon said: “We’re going to be fast, aggressive, everyone’s going to run to the ball, we’re going to have a chip on our shoulders, all of those things.”
The coordinator of that defense, Morgan Scalley, concurred that his guys can run, that it has strong, talented leadership.
“If they play to their ability, put in the work and the time, they could be as good as we’ve ever been,” he said. “We think they have the talent. … Our team, in 2004, was good, but we didn’t have the depth that this team has. Check back with me when the season is over. I don’t really care much for predictions.”
A flashback to August, 2004, is useful here. That’s when Scalley, the senior safety for the Utes, said back then what is applicable all these years later: “Everyone has high expectations. We’re a bunch of guys who bleed and sweat together. We know what has to be done to win.”
That Utah team went undefeated. This one?
Nobody’s projecting anything like that.
Still, deep down, the Utes feel pretty good — no brag, just almost-fact — about themselves, as they bleed and sweat together in August’s heat, attempting to actualize the promise that surrounds them.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone