Red All Over: How I assess Utah football over Zoom

(Photo courtesy of Utah Athletics) Quarterback Jake Bentley huddles up the Utes offense during a practice session

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Here’s an industry secret for you, the newsletter subscriber, just because I like you.

As the University of Utah football team continues on with fall camp in these weird, winding COVID-19 times, I have about as much insight into position battles right now as you do. The only difference between us is that I have the ability to get on a Zoom call with Kyle Whittingham, an assistant coach, and a few players three times per week.

That said, I’ve been on six Zoom calls since camp began Oct. 9, plus another couple of Pac-12-produced media webinars that Whittingham and players have been a part of. I listen, I decipher, I try to read between the lines, I try to make determinations on what’s happening with limited information. Having waded through all of it, I’m sticking with at least one thought I’ve had.

This Utah team, sight unseen with a slew of skill position holes and question marks, can be a factor in the Pac-12 South. My knee-jerk reaction when the schedule came out Oct. 3 was 5-1. Three weeks later, I still think 5-1 is reasonable, 4-2 at worst.

This of course depends on young guys stepping forward into bigger roles, especially in the secondary, and quarterback play being solid, but things are lined up for Utah to be good.

I have never been confused with Mr. Optimism, but I’m going with an optimistic view here. If Utah gets the first two vs. Arizona and at UCLA on a Friday night, Nov. 21 vs. prohibitive Pac-12 South favorite USC becomes massive. Get that one to move to 3-0, and a trip to Arizona State on Thanksgiving Saturday is likely for a division title.

But, one thing at a time. I’m just over here semi-educated guessing, just like the rest of you.

What’s on my mind, Utah or otherwise

• New working theory: After millions of people in the United States travel around the country for Thanksgiving, we’re going to see a severe spike in COVID-19 cases in December, and college basketball season is going to be in real danger. In recent days, we’ve seen Marquette and Toledo pause basketball activities because of COVID. Those two will not be the only two.

• The good folks at BetOnline.AG On Thursday morning released future odds for conference champions in each of the Power Five leagues. What caught my eye in the Pac-12 was Washington getting a healthy amount of respect at 6-1 to win the league. Yes, I think Washington is the second-best team in the Pac-12 North, but that doesn’t mean I think it should be 6-1 to win the league.

• For those of you asking about the Utah men’s basketball schedule, I advise you to check out the mailbag below.

• I’ve always believed there is a human element involved when kids opt to transfer. Case in point, when redshirt junior running back T.J. Green announced his transfer on Tuesday, there was a reaction, both on social media and from Kyle Whittingham on Wednesday. As the new guy, I never interacted with Green, but this was the vibe I got: Good kid, nice kid, a loss on some level because he did the right things and is on track to graduate in December. All that said, welcome to the business of college athletics. Green was the odd-man out in the running backs room, so he’s going somewhere he can break through and play.

• I find Lynne Roberts to be the most-transparent Utah head coach I’ve dealt with to this point. That’s it, that’s the thought.

Zach Wilson is not winning the Heisman Trophy, but in this weird year, don’t rule out the BYU quarterback being a finalist.

Your questions

Q: Given that Rising and Bentley are a little different stylistically, do you think the overall offensive game plan would be drastically different for each QB? (Does Rising = more run heavy vs Bentley = more pass heavy?) — @StevenHaglund

A: At the start of fall camp, offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig sounded like he was ready to throw the ball more this fall, which, at the time, indicated he would trust whoever winds up winning the quarterback job.

That said, while I don’t think we will see a drastic difference in the game plan, I do think, and this is just me being an armchair quarterback, there might be more trust in Bentley, simply because he has a resume and has shown over time he can make throws and win some games.

Frankly, Rising has not taken a meaningful snap since high school, so I’m not sure anyone knows for sure what he is or could be for this Utah offense.

Q: How nervous is the football coaching staff about the secondary right now? Seems like the shakiest position group on the team. — @benwilkinson

A: I don’t like the word “nervous” in this case, nor I would opt for “shakiest,” but your point is here perfectly valid.

The secondary is a huge question mark, bigger than the quarterback. It’s not because the options in the defensive backfield aren’t talented, it’s because these guys have not been asked to play major roles before.

Clark Phillips III may be supremely talented, but he’s still a true freshman. The projected outside cornerbacks are Bronson Boyd, who has appeared three times on defense, and JT Broughton, who appeared on defense four times last season as a true freshman.

The three options for two safety spots are Nate Ritchie, another true freshman, R.J. Hubert, who is coming off knee surgery and would be an opening-day starter for the first time, and Vonte Davis, who has appeared on defense eight times in two years.

Shaky? No. Talented, but mostly unproven in extended, significant playing time? Absolutely.

Q: Is there a chance that one of the benefits of the COVID-19 restrictions is that Utah renews its hoops rivalries with either Utah St. or Weber St.? — @AJCrowley42

A: For what it’s worth, we covered the potential for a round-robin among Utah’s Division I schools back in July. As it relates to this question, don’t hold your breath.

Everything is, of course, fluid during the pandemic, but based on conversations I’ve had over the last few days, I do not expect Utah to play Weber State this season, even if that is an easy, in-state nonconference game that would not need a hotel or an airplane.

You can read into that however you want, but here is a fact. In Larry Krystkowiak’s first year at Utah back in 2011, the Utes played at Weber State and were promptly run out of Ogden by a team that featured Damian Lillard as a junior. Krystkowiak has not scheduled Weber State since, and the only reason the Utes and Wildcats played last season is because it was contractually obligated as part of the Beehive Classic.

If Utah is not going to play Weber State, I can’t imagine what the reasoning would be to play Utah State, a program that has it going under third-year head coach Craig Smith, who is 54-15 in his first two seasons.

For what it’s worth, I was told earlier this week that Southern Utah has reached out to Utah to gauge scheduling interest, but that it didn’t go anywhere.

Bottom line, Utah will play three games in South Dakota at the Crossover Classic during Thanksgiving week. It will play BYU, and all indications are it will play Utah Valley, too. That leaves the Utes with two nonconference spots to fill, but optimism of more in-state games involving the state’s only Power Five program is waning.

Q: As a Jets fan, how do you live with yourself? — @Eric18utah

A: Not nice, Eric. Let me preface this answer with, I was born in 1982 and this genuinely might be the worst Jets team of my lifetime, which is saying something. In a vacuum, the infamous one-win ’96 Jets are at least touchdown favorites over these Jets.

Among the teams I grew up rooting for (Jets, Knicks, Yankees, Rangers), the Knicks were my first love. I was a die-hard Knicks fan through my early 20s, but the Jets are the only team that, as an adult in my late-30s, I still genuinely care about. I don’t why, but that’s just the way it is.

Hopefully one day, preferably while I’m still reasonably young, there will be a mistake made and the Jets will win 13 games and play in a Super Bowl instead of the perpetual rebuild.

On the topic of rebuilding, I think giving up on Sam Darnold at 23 is a mistake. Heck, we haven’t seen what Darnold can do with a professional offense or coaching staff yet,

Random musings

• I’m now soliciting any and all sushi recommendations in the Salt Lake City area. On a whim, I recently grabbed lunch from Takashi, which is downtown on West Market Street, and I thought it was excellent. Lunch combo D was the choice that day.

• It’s starting to get cold out, which means it’s getting to be chili/soup season. On topic, one of my wife’s great contributions to our relationship came when we were still dating and she convinced me that buying a slow cooker would be worth it. She was right.

• You’re not watching the presidential debate tonight because you can’t decide who to vote for. You already know who you’re voting for. No, you’re watching because it’s going to be a wreck, and who can’t help but look at a wreck when they’re driving down the highway?

• I don’t expect to come face-to-face with a student-athlete or a coach from Utah or anywhere else for at least the remainder of this academic year. To be honest, not only am I not sure about face-to-face interviews next year, I could see more Zooms and less face-to-face interaction being the new norm. For a variety of reasons, I genuinely hope that does not happen.