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Utah spring football practice opens Monday and new storylines abound

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Running back Devin Brumfield runs the ball as Keala Santiago defends on the play, in Utah's annual Read and White game at Rice-Eccles Stadium, Saturday, April 13, 2019.

Tyler Huntley is gone, so is Zack Moss. Bradlee Anae, Jaylon Johnson, Francis Bernard, Terrell Burgess? Gone, gone, gone and gone, as are a host of other key University of Utah football players from the past few years.

When the Utes — 11-3 and Pac-12 South winners for the second straight season in 2019 — take the field Monday afternoon to open spring practice, things will look very different. Starting Monday, Kyle Whittingham, Andy Ludwig, Morgan Scalley and the rest of the coaching staff will have just over six months to figure out who they’re going to put on the field Sept. 3 against BYU.

Six months is a long time from now, and hope always springs eternal this time of year for college football staffs and fans, so let’s stick with that. Here’s five things to watch as spring ball gets going in Salt Lake City.

The QB1 Derby

Who doesn’t love a good quarterback competition? It’s been a while now since Utah had one, given Huntley had a hammerlock on the most-important position on the field. When practice opens Monday, South Carolina graduate transfer Jake Bentley and redshirt sophomore Cam Rising will vie to be the starter.

For what it’s worth, this is not expected to be decided quickly, nor should it be. Whittingham and Ludwig have all spring, then most of the summer to figure this out, but it’s going to boil down to these two.

When Bentley committed to Utah on Dec. 9, he was immediately thought to be the odds-on favorite to start in 2020, mostly because he has 33 starts under his belt as the Gamecocks’ quarterback. Although Rising, who transferred from Texas but was not granted immediate eligibility last season, has a year of experience working within Ludwig’s offense.

Whittingham is generally not in the business of sharing the innermost details of his program, especially something important like this. This is going to be a major topic of discussion on Monday when he meets the media for the first time this spring, and probably each time he meets the media this spring, but don’t expect anything thorough or concrete for a while.

There are six quarterbacks listed on Utah’s spring roster. Of the four besides Bentley and Rising, keep an eye on Drew Lisk, a redshirt senior, who will at least go through spring practice after even doing that was in some doubt during Alamo Bowl prep in September.

The RB1 Derby

Not as heralded as the QB situation, but still important.

Forget all the career records Moss left with, of which there were many. Replicating merely his senior season, when he put up 1,416 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns, is going to be a tall task, but there is at least some production returning to the backfield.

Junior Devin Brumfield and sophomore Jordan Wilmore are the two-most experienced running backs at Ludwig’s disposal. In 2019, Brumfield played in all 14 games, finishing with 59 carries for 273 yards and two touchdowns, while Wilmore played in 12 games, tallying 49 carries for 209 yards and a score. Brumfield also had nine catches out of the backfield, a factor that is always worth keeping tabs on as running backs fight for reps.

Whether this complicated or clarified the running back situation is up for debate, but Devonta’e Henry-Cole, who likely would have gotten a long look, has transferred to BYU. As a redshirt junior last fall, Henry-Cole was used sparingly, certainly less so than Brumfield and Wilmore.

Might three-star, multi-dimensional running back Ty Jordan factor in here? We have to wait until training camp to find out.

The return of Britain Covey

For all of the talent across a slew of positions that Utah is losing, it is returning a lot in terms of receiving options.

All-America tight end Brant Kuithe emerged as Huntley’s favorite target, Jaylen Dixon was again productive as a redshirt sophomore, Bryan Thompson showed some big-play, downfield ability. All told, Utah is returning seven players who caught at least 10 passes in 2019.

Of those seven guys, Britain Covey is the most-intriguing. Now a redshirt junior, Covey suffered a torn ACL in the 2018 Pac-12 championship game against Washington. He pushed himself through rehabilitation last summer in an effort to be ready for 2019. After four games, he, his family and the staff decided the prudent move was to give the knee more time to heel and restart his junior season in 2020.

A healthy Covey benefits whoever wins the quarterback job. He led the Utes in receptions in 2015 as a freshman (43), then in 2018 as a sophomore (60). Covey served a two-year church mission in between. Aside from pass-catching, Covey has served as a capable, dangerous punt returner in the past.

One returning name to monitor this spring is Solomon Enis. A junior in 2020, there was speculation after the Alamo Bowl that Enis would transfer, but that never came to fruition. Like Thompson, Enis is a big, athletic, downfield target. In two seasons, he has compiled 27 catches for 337 yards.

A young secondary, complete with a young stud

According to the 247sports.com composite, Clark Phillips III is the highest-rated recruit in Utah football history. There is going to be hype surrounding him, he will be expected to start and contribute from the very outset.

Right, wrong, good, bad or otherwise, that is what’s about to happen as spring ball gets going. Phillips will get spring reps against the first-team offense, and while nothing is going to get settled early with such a young secondary, if things go according to plan, Phillips is going to start Sept. 3 against BYU. Beyond that, there are a ton of question marks, especially now, when not all of the freshmen are on campus yet.

Three-star Ben Renfro is, like Phillips, on campus and will go through spring practice? After converting from receiver to safety, can he find early footing to give Scalley something to think about going into training camp? Is junior free safety RJ Hubert healthy enough to go after suffering an injury in the Pac-12 title game against Oregon? Now a senior strong safety, Vontae Davis has played in 28 games across two years, but most of that has been on special teams. Can he take a significant step forward in Scalley’s defense.

Whittingham said last month at his National Signing Day press conference that he hoped to have three-star athlete Caine Savage ready to go for spring ball, but he is not currently listed on Utah’s 2020 spring roster.

Coaching-staff continuity can only be a positive

Whittingham has spoken about this in terms of recruiting, but it is also worth speaking about in terms of the current roster and the challenge Utah is facing this spring and summer.

Whittingham had no turnover on his staff. Ludwig is back for a second season. Scalley, a native son, was connected to at least Mountain West head-coaching job, but he is back, complete with an amended contract, the contents of which have yet to be made public. Highly respected cornerbacks coach Sharrieff Shah and on down the list you go.

There will presumably be no radical changes to schemes, or at least philosophy, on either side of the ball. Bentley and Rising will go through a quarterback competition with the offensive coordinator they came in with. Phillips will open his career playing for Shah, who brought that recruitment home after Phillips decommitted from Ohio State. An offensive line that has more experience than some may realize will have Jim Harding back as its position coach.

Whittingham said last month it’s good not to have to hand over recruits to a new assistant coach. Well, it’s also not to have to hand over your current players to a new assistant coach either.

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