Utah football’s secondary emerges as Kyle Whittingham’s biggest concern as season opener approaches

Kyle Whittingham has been consistent this month in regards to what his priorities are during fall camp for the University of Utah football team.

The top priority was always to figure out who the quarterback is between Jake Bentley, Cameron Rising and Drew Lisk. Just behind the quarterback situation was to figure out how to replace the entire secondary after all five members cracked NFL active rosters, or at least practice squads last month.

Even if Whittingham will not publicly announce who his quarterback is until late next week, that situation has played out. The 16th-year head coach said Monday morning on a Zoom call that he expected to have a starter in place when practice started back up Tuesday afternoon.

The secondary, with options ranging from veterans with few or zero career starts all the way to true freshmen, is not as defined as Whittingham would like with Tuesday marking 11 days until the Nov. 7 opener vs. Arizona (2 p.m., ESPNU).

“Not quite yet, we’re close,” Whittingham said. “One day, you think you have them and the next, things change. We don’t have that solidified and to me, as the head coach, that’s probably my biggest concern right now, is the secondary and making sure we get that right.”

With practice moving exclusively to preparing for Arizona late this week, Whittingham acknowledged Monday that he and his defensive coaching staff may come away with four cornerbacks they like to play three spots. Presumably, those four are redshirt junior Bronson Boyd, sophomore JT Broughton, freshman Clark Phillips III and redshirt sophomore Malone Mataele.

Whittingham said on Friday that Phillips has been spending most of his time lately at outside cornerback, indicating that is where he would start the season. If Phillips is going to play outside, that could mean Mataele slides in as the starter at nickel, with Boyd and Broughton left to fight for the second outside cornerback spot.

However the cornerbacks shake out, there is going to be a notable lack of experience. Boyd and Broughton have 37 career games between them, but only seven appearances on defense. Phillips has never taken a snap, while Mataele has four defensive appearances in 11 career games.

As far as safeties go, Whittingham labeled that situation as “more defined and more clear than corners right now, but they’re still not completely set.”

That position appears to be three guys for two spots, with junior R.J. Hubert, senior Vonte Davis and freshman Nate Ritchie as the contenders. Now 100% healthy after injuring his knee in the Pac-12 championship game 11 months ago, Hubert projects as the starter at free safety.

Ritchie vs. Davis for one safety spot offers intrigue. Davis has played in all 28 games over the last two years, but has only appeared on defense in eight of those games. Whittingham has singled out Ritchie a handful of times this month as someone consistently making plays, leading to the notion that he could work his way into being an opening-day starter.

“If you can’t hold up in the secondary, things can get away from you real quick,” Whittingham said. “We’re hoping the front can compensate for some of the inexperience in the secondary, but some days, the front hasn’t looked as good as we’d like it to either. It’s a lot of work to be done on defense. That’s the most-concerning thing for us as coaches right now, the defensive side of the ball.”