Circumstances in and around Utah football at the start of the Pac-12 season in 2020 prompt what should be considered high praise: The Utes will be good, again.
We’re guessing on that, but before a single ball has been kicked or passed or caught or recovered, before a play has been made or unmade, that’s all anybody has. And while Kyle Whittingham is saying he needs more refinement out of a nearly all-new defense — “We’re still a long ways away,” he said — the projection for the Utes looks bright, if not completely clear.
That’s remarkable, really, considering those losses Utah took off last year’s South Division-winning team, a now-graduated group or, at least, a group that has moved on, much of which, especially on that D, is playing in the NFL. The Utes lost nine starters on that side, including the entire back end, as well as the two most significant positions on offense — their starting quarterback and star running back.
Other than that, no worries.
But here’s the thing — replacements are at hand. Utah seems to have crossed a talent threshold in the Pac-12 where it can move in something or someone within shouting distance of what or who it has moved out.
Tyler Huntley and Zack Moss are gone, who together accounted for most of the Utes' offensive production last time around. Whittingham hasn’t announced a starter at quarterback, and won’t, having staged and stoked a battle between Jake Bentley and Cam Rising, and trying his darnedest to hide the conclusion. That starter has been selected and the players have been informed. How did the No. 2 react?
“Disappointment and acceptance,” is the way Whittingham put it.
And at running back there are four guys in the mix, among them Devin Brumfield and Jordan Wilmore.
“It’s going to be by committee,” said Whittingham, at least in the early stages, adding further that each of the four has a unique skillset. “We don’t anticipate a guy getting 25 touches.”
The offensive line, a leak in the dam last season, will be back, stronger, wiser and improved. “They look great,” said defensive lineman Pita Tonga. All conference tight end Brant Kuithe and slot receiver Britain Covey, along with Bryan Thompson and others, will give Bentley or Rising dependable targets.
The rock-steady understructure of Utah football, the aforementioned defense, is being spackled and plastered together — tutored, really — after its massive departures, but athletes of substance are being called on to lead out, including players like Mika Tafua, Devin Lloyd and Clark Phillips III, among others, some of the risers lacking experience.
“The young guys we have are super athletic and they’re willing to learn,” Tonga said. “You combine that with the things we [all] are learning and that we’re trying to teach them. Progress has gone faster than expected by a lot of people.”
As for the defensive line, Tonga said:
“When you join the D-line at Utah, you have to look back on the history of the D-linemen who have come through this school. Clearly, there are many great players who have come through and the couple years I’ve been here, I’ve been able to train and practice and learn from some of the best D-linemen that I could have. … The ones who were here before teach the ones who are coming up.”
As for the secondary, cornerback Malone Mataele said the Utes are “sharpening our blades, perfecting our technique.” He added that the example of the guys who have gone on to the NFL inspire the leftovers, but most of their confidence comes from the guys on the team now.
“We’re putting in a lot of time and effort,” said defensive end Maxs Tupai. “… A lot of the young guys are hungry and locked in.”
He added: “They’ve got a lot of fire in them.”
They’ll need it.
How it will all come and — given the unpredictables in a typical season of injuries and untypical season of COVID — stay together is conjecture.
Which is to say, only a fool says he knows with exactness.
Whittingham is no fool, stating merely that his team is a “work in progress.”
But given the steady leadership of the veteran head coach and offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig, as well as other longtime assistants, and the ability for the Utes to have been consistent and coordinated on campus in their training through the pandemic’s disruption, that’s all a sizable advantage. And if ever there was a season in which Utah needed smoothing in that regard, this is it.
In addition, consider Moss’s words in departure to The Tribune’s Josh Newman at the end of the 2019 season. Of his remaining teammates, he said: “Those guys know the blueprint from the years and the work that we put in. They know what it takes to be here. You know, going back-to-back championship games. Being South champions back-to-back years, they know the recipe.”
They also benefit from a schedule that breaks favorably for them, truncated though it is: Arizona at Rice-Eccles, UCLA at the Rose Bowl, USC at RES, Arizona State on the road, Oregon State here, Colorado in Boulder.
Where are the losses?
Players and coaches can assume nothing, but we have no such restrictions or responsibilities here. It’s vaguely possible but given the state of the various programs unlikely and unimaginable for the Utes to stumble and bumble over the Wildcats, the Bruins, the Beavers and the Buffs. That leaves the Trojans and the Sun Devils.
If they split those games, that leaves the Utes at 5-1, giving them a shot at a third straight South title. SC is thought to be the favorite, but how’s that worked out for Clay Helton’s teams of the recent past? It’s left them wondering whether Urban Meyer will take over for Helton in the near future.
If Whittingham’s team successfully absorbs the personnel losses off last year’s outfit, which was 8-1 in the Pac-12 regular season and a feeder for the NFL, and wins another division title, what does that say about the strength of Utah football?
It says two things: The Utes must yet conquer the North and win a league championship and, regardless of who comes and goes, they’ve built a rare rolling enterprise that puts them annually in a decent position to do so.