Kyle Whittingham took a seat on the patio of a Hollywood hotel, concluding a long day of fielding variations of the same question. During the Pac-12 Football Media Day, Whittingham repeatedly was asked about his Utah football team’s being picked to win the conference championship.
“Over and over,” he said, sighing.
Here comes a full month’s discussion of another subject, Utah’s season-opening game vs. BYU. Some degree of novelty accompanies the rivals’ meeting in August for the first time. So what will that be like?
Whittingham's standard answer: Ask me when it's over.
Between now and Aug. 29 in Provo, other issues must be addressed as the Utes start practice Wednesday. Here are five of them:
Preseason camp • Wednesday (All practices closed to the public).
Season opener • Aug. 29, at BYU, 8:15 p.m. ESPN
How will the offensive line develop?
Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig’s scheme is built around running back Zack Moss. It will work only if the offensive line comes together, with two players needing to emerge in August.
Darrin Paulo, Nick Ford and Orlando Umana are proven linemen. Paulo is the left tackle. Ford is stationed at right tackle and Umana is the center for now, but those two can move around, according to the strengths of the other two starters.
“The real key is to get the five guys who are going to start solidified as soon as you can,” Whittingham said.
The Utes have big hopes for junior college transfer Bamidele Olaseni, but he’s not expected to arrive until later this week or beyond after completing academic work. Expecting him to become a starter within a month is a stretch, even as a highly recruited player.
Who’s the kicker?
Utah's fan base is divided between those who agonize about the team's kicking game and those who figure if former Utah Valley University soccer player Matt Gay could become a Lou Groza Award winner and NFL draft pick, the next kicker also should thrive. The worriers are winning, at the moment.
Freshman walk-on Jadon Redding looked good at times in spring practice, then was declared the No. 2 kicker after the Red-White Game. Chayden Johnston retired from football the following week, though, temporarily leaving Redding as the only kicker on the roster. Utah has added two walk-ons: Andrew Strauch, a graduate transfer from UCLA; and Nels Haltom, from Bountiful High School via Cerritos (Calif) JC. Another kicker is expected to join the camp competition, Whittingham said: “Whoever wins it, proves to be a capable guy, will get a scholarship.”
How will Utes replace Britain Covey?
Covey himself may answer this question, if he’s fully able to recover from knee surgery by the season opener. He’ll have some level of activity during camp, but is allowing for the possibility that he may not play until October.
Samson Nacua is listed as Covey’s backup as a slot receiver. Jaylen Dixon and others are in the mix, Whittingham said. Besides being Utah’s leading receiver last season with 60 catches, Covey will be used as a runner on sweeps, a staple of Ludwig’s offense. Demari Simpkins and Derrick Vickers were visible in that role in the spring, with Covey absent.
How will Francis Bernard and Devin Lloyd look?
Chase Hansen and Cody Barton formed possibly the best linebacking tandem in school history as seniors last season. Francis Bernard and Penn State transfer Manny Bowen were expected to come close to matching their production. But Bowen has decided to give up football, Ute Zone reported late Tuesday, and Bernard will have to prove himself in August after missing spring practice due to injury.
Devin Lloyd was the defense’s most improved player in the spring, defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley said, and will likely become a starter in the scheme that generally uses two linebackers.
What’s the team’s attitude?
Everyone wants to know how the Utes will respond to high expectations in 2019, if the nice things people are saying will make them complacent or feel too much pressure. Some percentage of fans are worried about the hype, although there’s no history of the Utes failing to live up to a preseason AP Top 25 ranking.
That's partly because the Utes have been ranked only twice in August: in 2004, when they went 12-0, and in 2009, when they finished 10-3. They're likely to be ranked in the mid-teens in the preseason AP Top 25, due Aug. 19.
Whittingham is conscious of making sure the Utes don't become overconfident, having initially raised the subject in April. And having BYU as the season opener should help them focus in camp. They've heard clips from BYU's Media Day in the weight room this summer and recent history shows the Utes perform better in August against a recognizable team than their usual FCS opponent.
Utah’s most complete season-opening performance of the Pac-12 era came against Michigan in 2015.