Punctuation, anticipation and expectation. Donation, too.
Those are the four words that best encapsulated Utah’s Red-White game on Saturday at Rice-Eccles Stadium, and they had no complete connection to what actually transpired on the field. Only a partial.
The entire affair ended the Utes’ spring football practices with the closest thing to a party that could be extracted from what, in theory, was a controlled scrimmage. Before play even began, school administrators announced that the Ken Garff Family had contributed $17.5 million to aid expansion and upgrades to Rice-Eccles. So, everybody on hand was in a good mood about that.
The announcement was symbolic of the increased optimism surrounding Utah football, as a whole.
When the action commenced, many starters, just as Kyle Whittingham had predicted, stood and watched while less established players did much of the work, played the game, entertained the 6,000 fans in the stands, made their mark.
And those marks were made.
Cameron Rising — a transfer quarterback who might not even be eligible to play in the fall — threw 10 passes, completing eight of them, for 77 yards and a touchdown. And the fact that he’s drawing first notice here, as a possible third-string option, underscored the main point:
The Utes are loading up for a promising run in the fall.
They are talented, experienced at key positions, and deep. The defending champs of the South will be likely division favorites, maybe league favorites, as well, the reasons having already been noted.
That QB slot is indicative.
Senior starter Tyler Huntley looked sharp in new offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig’s partially installed attack — he hit on 8 of 9 passes for 158 yards and ran for a score — although on this occasion, the O was, indeed, rudimentary.
“You didn’t see nothing at all,” he said afterward, in classic Huntley style. When asked about this team’s potential, he responded: “The sky’s the limit because we got playmakers from Depth 1 to Depth 2 to Depth 3, so it’s going to be a great season.
“We’ve got so many players. We got Demari Simpkins. We got [Devonta’e] Henry-Cole. We got Zack Moss. We got [Britain] Covey. We got Samson Nacua. We got Bryan Thompson. We got … man, I could keep naming them. We got so many playmakers, you know what I’m saying?”
Ludwig’s fresh offense is bound to be an improvement over last season’s. Already, in the early stages, he and his mentorship feel like an upgrade over the contradicted, if not confused, offensive direction of the past couple of years, when the Utes sometimes passed when they should have run, and ran when they should have passed.
Huntley’s presumed backup, Jason Shelley, who stepped in as a redshirt freshman after Huntley got hurt toward the end of last season, has shown he can spin the ball around the yard and play with poise. In this scrimmage, he completed 7 of 10 passes for 87 yards and a touchdown.
And then, there’s Rising. The Texas transfer is waiting to hear whether he has to sit out the year or can join in right away. He’s stirred notice through his spring performances, and hopes to play as soon as he’s allowed.
When a team is that loaded at the single most important position on the field and in the program, the aforementioned anticipation is warranted.
And, as Huntley said, it builds from there.
One of the best running backs in the Pac-12 — Moss — returns. Everyone knows what he can do. Ludwig said after the scrimmage that his offense requires numbers at running back, and a fistful of them played on Saturday.
The receivers were productive, too, despite an emphasis on the basics, the highlight among them coming from Thompson, who hauled in a 59-yard pass from Huntley early in the game.
And the Utah defense is … well, a Utah defense, same as it ever was.
““This is a good unselfish group,” said Morgan Scalley, defensive coordinator. “It was a productive spring. The thing about this game is, you can’t hide. You’ve got to go out there and play. We’ve got guys who want to be good. A lot of them want to move on and play in the NFL. They know they have to study, they have to prepare. Our best players are our best workers.”
Added safety Julian Blackmon, who did not play: “The ceiling’s high. Just watching the spring game, there were some fantastic plays made. The talent is amazing. And everybody’s close. The bond matters, it really does matter.”
Saturday’s Red-White game took on, then, the feel of a celebration of progress and potential, of the ground already covered and the ground yet to be conquered, for the Ute program. Many observers close to the team and those from afar are predicting positive gains for Utah football in the fall, some saying the Utes have a real shot at winning the Pac-12 and going to the Rose Bowl.
It is real. Real hard.
Those observers see what they see, they know what they know, they predict what they predict. And what they see and know and predict is not a concoction, not a mirage, not a fantasy. It is all grounded in the authenticities of a growing program.
“We’ve got a chance to be good,” Whittingham said. “We’ve got a chance.”
Even if the Utes don’t win the Pac-12 in 2019, the guesses that they will are formed out of sound reasoning.
And the pleasant mood to close out the spring reflected exactly that.
Oh, and the Red beat the White on Saturday, 21-14, in case anybody cared.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.