The University of Utah was supposed to start the 2020 football season on Sept. 3. That got moved back to Sept. 26, followed by one more move to Nov. 7. Regardless of the start date, one thing was a certainty.
These Utes are going to look quite different from the group that won 11 games and got to the doorstep of the College Football Playoff 10 months ago.
Utah will open fall camp on Friday and will do so with a host of position holes to fill. The quarterback will be new, as will the primary running back, not to mention the entire secondary. There is also a hole at one linebacker spot, while a handful of freshmen could challenge for immediate playing time.
The process of figuring all of this out began months ago, but it will get ramped up beginning Friday. Here are a few questions facing the Utes as camp opens and the calendar moves inside 30 days to the opener vs. the Wildcats.
Who is the quarterback?
Kyle Whittingham has enough respect for Drew Lisk to call what’s happening a three-man quarterback competition between the redshirt senior, South Carolina graduate transfer Jake Bentley, and redshirt sophomore Cameron Rising.
For all intents and purposes, this is Bentley vs. Rising, and Whittingham laid out his rough timeline last week for picking one of them. Whittingham wants to go from three candidates down to two “within a week, hopefully,” then pick the starter “a week or so after that.”
Under that timetable, Whittingham is aiming to pick his starter on or around Oct. 24. By that date, Utah will have presumably scrimmaged twice and things should be clear. That date also gives the starter two weeks to work with the first-team offense before the Utes take the field Nov. 7.
As a graduate transfer, Bentley has never taken a snap for Utah, but he started 33 games across four seasons for an SEC program. Rising has a season working under offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig, but has also not taken a snap for Utah.
How well Bentley can command Ludwig’s offense is a key early-camp storyline because when we last saw Utah in March, Bentley was still very much learning the ropes.
What does the secondary look like?
On a Zoom call with reporters late last week, Whittingham said getting the quarterback situation sorted out was the top priority, but the secondary is a close second.
That stems from the fact that both cornerbacks (Jaylon Johnson, Josh Nurse), both safeties (Terrell Burgess, Julian Blackmon) and the nickel back (Javelin Guidry) who started in the Pac-12 championship game last season are gone to the NFL. Replacing that level of production is a Herculean task, but it has to start somewhere.
Highly touted four-star freshman Clark Phillips III has been working at both nickel and cornerback recently. At this point, he is a mortal lock to start at one of those two spots. Beyond Phillips, things are fluid.
Redshirt junior Bronson Boyd has played in 23 career games, but appeared on defense only three times last season. Sophomore JaTravis Broughton is in a similar position, having played in all 14 games as a true freshman last fall, but saw time on the defense in only four of them.
Phillips is versatile enough to line up at either position, but the thinking is he projects as a nickel. It would be helpful if Boyd and Broughton could secure outside spots, freeing Phillips to move inside.
Three true freshmen, Caine Savage, Kenzel Lawler, and Faybian Marks, could factor in here. Savage was the only one of three to enroll early.
The safety position has more experience, but questions will persist. Vonte Davis projects as a starter at one safety spot as a senior with 28 games as a Ute, but his contribution in the secondary has been minimal as he waited his turn on the depth chart. Whether or not R.J. Hubert is healthy enough to play will be another key early storyline, but Whittingham said Wednesday on a Pac-12 coaches webinar that the junior is 100% cleared with no restrictions.
Four-star freshman Nate Ritchie and three-star classmate Ben Renfro could figure into the safety mix during training camp. Renfro enrolled early, Ritchie did not.
Who is the other linebacker next to Devin Lloyd?
There may be a lot of new pieces on Utah’s defense, but Lloyd is not one of them after registering a team-leading 91 tackles and 6.5 sacks on his way to honorable mention All-Pac-12 honors last fall as a redshirt sophomore.
Another All-Pac-12 linebacker, Francis Bernard, is gone to the NFL, so who replaces him and slides in next to Lloyd bears watching. That said, Whittingham has already said what he’s thinking.
Speaking on 700 AM last week, Whitingham called redshirt junior Nephi Sewell the “odds-on favorite” right now to start opposite Lloyd. Sewell, who began moving from safety to linebacker earlier this offseason, became eligible for Utah late in the 2019 regular season. He played in the Utes' final three games, including a start in the Alamo Bowl vs. Texas after Blackmon and Hubert were both lost to injury in the Pac-12 championship game. Sewell played in 23 games, including 19 starts, at Nevada between the 2017 and 2018 seasons.
Beyond Sewell, redshirt sophomore Andrew Mata’afa saw action in seven games last season, but has never started, while sophomore Hayden Fury played in five games last season, all on special teams.
Will it be Devin Brumfield or Jordan Wilmore at RB?
It’s not as high-profile as figuring out who the quarterback is, but figuring out who replaces Zack Moss as the primary running back is important.
Take it with a grain of salt, but Brumfield, a junior, was listed on Utah’s spring two-deep as the starter after rushing for 263 yards and two touchdowns on 59 carries. His nine catches out of the backfield would indicate his ability as a security blanket for Bentley or Rising. Wilmore, a sophomore and the highest-rated running back recruit in program history, per the 247sports composite, had 194 yards and a touchdown on 49 carries in 2019.
This is a deep position group. Junior TJ Green has seen limited reps in 16 career games as a Ute, while the staff has spoken highly of Micah Bernard’s potential. Bernard took a redshirt last fall as a freshman after seeing special teams action in four games.
The wildcard among running backs is freshman Ty Jordan. A three-star recruit from West Mesquite (Texas) High School and one-time University of Texas commit, Jordan’s multidimensional talent could make him an immediate factor not only on offense, but potentially as a kick returner.
What are the chances Utah and the rest of the Pac-12 actually play seven games?
That is genuinely anyone’s guess, but the question is going to be relevant throughout the fall, especially if cases spike within the Pac-12 footprint.
One thing is clear. The Pac-12 is starting late and is attempting to squeeze seven games into seven weeks, meaning it has given itself no chance to postpone a game if COVID-related problems do pop up. If a game is called off, it is not getting postponed, but instead canceled.
“We’ll be elated if we get all seven games in, I think that will be fantastic,” Whittingham said on an Oct. 1 Zoom call with reporters. “I don’t know if that’s realistic with the way things are.”
The Pac-12 is in the process of drafting guidelines for what teams will need personnel-wise in order to play a game. For example, if a team doesn’t have a certain number of offensive or defensive linemen for a given game, it will not be able to play.
From a Utah perspective, the Utes have had positive tests within their football program since student-athletes began returning to campus in mid-June, but the number of positives is thought to be very few, a notion Utah athletic director Mark Harlan confirmed Thursday afternoon in an 700 AM interview.
Either way, the presence of daily-antigen testing in all Pac-12 athletic departments will help this cause, not by stopping the virus, but at least identifying who has it in a more timely manner.