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Utes could contend for a Pac-12 South title, but a bunch of things will need to go right

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah players prepare to take the field as the Utah Utes host the Washington State Cougars, NCAA football at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday Sept. 28, 2019.

There have been a small handful of times since the University of Utah football team began fall camp earlier this month that Kyle Whittingham has talked about ... time.

More specifically, the 16th-year head coach has referenced the lack of it that he has right now.

Twenty-nine days from the start of camp to the Nov. 7 season opener vs. Arizona (2 p.m., ESPNU) isn’t a lot of time to figure out who the starting quarterback is, nor is it a lot of time to figure out who replaces Zack Moss in the backfield. Nine defensive starters are gone from 2019, including the entire secondary, a factor that weighed heavily throughout camp.
There has been a linebacker spot up for grabs, Britain Covey is getting back in the swing of things in the slot, and a place-kicker competition has emerged among other things going on.
For better or worse, Utah is just about out of time. These Utes, voted to finish third in the Pac-12 South, but expected to compete for a third straight division title, will debut Nov. 7 and will do so amidst a fair amount of questions, but also a fair amount of optimism.
Who is the quarterback? Whittingham, his staff, and the players know, but no one else is going to know until potentially all the way up to the first offensive snap. The widely-held assumption is a three-way competition at the start of camp boiled down to Jake Bentley and Cameron Rising. Bentley is more experienced, Rising has had more time working under offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig. The coaching staff is comfortable with both guys, but there is not going to be a platoon.

“We have to be able to start sinking the reps into two guys and then, like we’ve said before, get that down to one,” Whittingham said earlier this month after Utah’s first scrimmage, indicating that time was short in getting the competition from three to two, and eventually two to one. “There is no time for us to continue to sink equal reps into three guys.”

THE UTES WILL SUCCEED IF:

The defense can mature and round into form under this truncated seven-game season. Sixty percent of last season’s defensive line is in the NFL, as is the entire secondary. Those are large shoes to fill, but the coaching staff believes there is enough talent in the mix to make it happen.


THE UTES WON’T SUCCEED IF:

The unknown(s) at quarterback don’t pan out. There may be a lot of talent at Utah’s offensive skill positions, but the situation at running back does not appear sturdy enough to overcome bad quarterback play. If Jake Bentley and/or Cameron Rising struggle, it could be a long seven weeks.


BOTTOM LINE:

Utah has the pieces to make a run at a third straight Pac-12 South title, but the defense needs to catch up to the offense, preferably in a hurry. It would help if the offense carried the load early while the defense figures itself out. If the Utes open 2-0 against Arizona and UCLA, the Nov. 21 home game vs. USC becomes massive, but one thing at a time.

Who is the running back? Zack Moss left Utah with nearly every conceivable rushing record the program has. At the start, his replacement is expected to come by committee with Devin Brumfield, Jordan Wilmore, Micah Bernard and Ty Jordan all offering different things. Brumfield can be a “bell cow” for the Utes, Wilmore is the highest-rated running back recruit in the history of the program, and Jordan, a true freshman, is going to play an immediate role as a multidimensional option.
What does the secondary look like? Young and inexperienced, but talented. Whittingham in recent interview sessions has painted the cornerback situation as four guys for three spots, with the safety situation as three guys for two spots. All told, it’s a mix of true freshman and veterans that have played some, but have not had to step into larger, every-down roles. However that shakes out, two true freshmen, cornerback Clark Phillips III and safety Nate Ritchie are going to be factors.

“Coming in and learning a whole new scheme has been hard and tricky,” said Ritchie, who starred at Lone Peak High School. “You’re going to have your down times where you mess up and give up because you feel you’re not doing very well. You just have to keep being consistent and keep learning every day.”

Ritchie’s feelings echo on a bigger level for Utah. Everyone has tried to be consistent this month. Everyone has kept learning, and on Nov. 7, with time up, we’re going to see what the initial payoff entails.

UTAH’S PROJECTED TWO-DEEP

Offense

LT • Nick Ford, Jr., 6-5, 315; Luke Felix-Fualalo, R-Fr., 6-7, 311

LG • Keaton Bills, R-Fr., 6-4, 313; Braedan Daniels, So., 6-4, 310

C • Orlando Umana, Sr., 6-4, 311; Paul Maile, So., 6-2, 300

RG • Johnny Maea, So., 6-4, 310; Sataoa Laumea, R-Fr., 6-4, 305

RT • Simi Moala, So., 6-7, 312 OR Jaren Kump, Fr., 6-5, 305; Bam Olaseni, 6-7, 335

TE • Brant Kuithe, Jr., 6-2, 230; Cole Fotheringham, Jr., 6-4, 245

QB • Jake Bentley Gr., 6-4, 220 OR Cameron Rising, So., 6-2, 220;

RB • Devin Brumfield, Jr., 5-10, 212; Jordan Wilmore, So., 5-8, 200

WR • Bryan Thompson, Jr., 6-2, 207; Samson Nacua, Sr., 6-3, 195

WR • Solomon Enis, Jr., 6-3, 208; Devaughn Vele, R-Fr., 6-4, 205

WR • Britain Covey, R-Jr., 5-8, 172; Money Parks, Fr., 170


Defense

DE • Mika Tafua, Jr., 6-3, 250; Xavier Carlton, Fr., 6-6, 250

DT • Hauati Pututau, Sr., 6-3, 310; Tanoa Togiai, Fr., 6-6, 310

DT • Viane Moala, Sr., 6-6, 323; Pita Tonga, Sr., 6-1, 310

DE • Maxs Tupai, Sr., 6-1, 265; Blake Kuithe, So., 6-3, 255 OR Van Fillinger, Fr., 6-4, 255

LB • Devin Lloyd, Jr., 6-3, 232; Sione Fotu, 6-0, 230

LB • Nephi Sewell, Jr., 6-0, 225; Andrew Mata’afa, So., 6-3, 225

CB • JT Broughton, So., 5-11, 190; Faybian Marks, Fr., 5-10, 185

CB • Clark Phillips III, Fr., 5-10, 191; Drew Rawls, R-Fr., 6-0, 188

CB • Malone Mataele, So., 5-11, 185; Aaron Lowe, So., 6-0, 188

S • R.J. Hubert, Jr., 6-0, 195; Kamo’i Latu, Fr., 6-3, 190

S • Nate Ricthie, Fr., 6-2, 200; Vonte Davis, Sr., 6-0, 190


Specialists

K • Jadon Redding, So., 5-11, 190; Jordan Noyes, Fr., 5-10,. 209

P • Ben Lennon, So., 6-2, 213; Jared March, R-Fr., 5-11, 192

KO • Jordan Noyes, Fr., 5-10, 209; Jadon Redding, So., 5-11, 190

H • Ben Lennon, So., 6-2, 213; Britain Covey, R-Jr., 5-8, 172

LS • Keegan Markgraf, Sr., 6-3, 225; Noah Rodriguez-Trammell, Jr., 6-2, 200

KR • Britain Covey, R-Jr., 5-8, 172; Bryan Thompson, Jr., 6-2, 207

PR • Britain Covey, R-Jr., 5-8, 172; Ty Jordan, Fr., 5-7, 200 OR Samson Nacua, Sr., 6-3, 195

UTAH’S 2020 SCHEDULE

Nov. 7 vs. Arizona, 2 p.m.

A manageable season opener for a Utah team with question marks.

Nov. 13 at UCLA, 8:30 p.m.

Chip Kelly’s hiring has gone less than smooth for UCLA, which got rolled at Rice-Eccles Stadium in 2019

Nov. 21 vs USC, TBD

Utes are 3-6 vs. Trojans since entering Pac-12, but all three wins came at home

Nov. 28 at Arizona State, TBD

Result vs. USC helps determine how important this game is for Utah. Sun Devils should contend in Pac-12 South

Dec. 5 vs. Oregon State, TBD

Utes came out great in terms of crossover matchup, as Beavers are not expected to contend in Pac-12 North

Dec. 11 at Colorado, 7:30 p.m.

Early-mid December night kickoff in Boulder? Pack a coat.

Dec. 18-19, Pac-12 championship game OR crossover consolation

Pac-12 wisely keeps its title game by itself on Friday night, two days before the College Football Playoff is selected and seeded two days later


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