Utes football prep pauses for the election. And the first in-season two-deep released.

(Photo courtesy of Utah Athletics) R.J. Hubert (10) during a recent football practice

When the NCAA mandated that every Division I program gives its student-athletes Election Day off, the move was well-intentioned.

About 170,000 Division I athletes are now free to vote on a day dedicated to civic engagement without worrying about practice getting in the way.

It does, however, get in the way of standard preparations for college football programs around the country. To take that a step further, the University of Utah is preparing to finally open its season Saturday afternoon against Arizona at Rice-Eccles Stadium (2 p.m., ESPNU).

The Election Day mandate did not creep up on Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham and his staff, so instead of complaining about it, they merely planned around it.

“Not a big deal, because we’ve been scheduling and preparing for that as far as how we’re structuring each practice to compensate,” Whittingham said on a Zoom call with reporters Friday.

The Utes went light in practice Friday, then embarked on what Whittingham termed a “heavy day" Saturday before taking Sunday off, as they normally do. Under normal circumstances, Whittingham would have gone light on Monday and heavy Tuesday. Instead, the Utes were slated to go heavy on Monday before Tuesday’s mandated day off.

Whittingham said Monday morning that practice later in the afternoon was likely to be Utah’s final fully-padded practice of the week.

“I don’t expect it to be a factor at all,” Whittingham said. “The entire conference, the entire country is all handling it the same way. It’s the same for Arizona and everybody else in the league, so I’m sure they have the same approach as we do.”

Utah’s election-related game-week wrinkle only adds to the unprecedented nature of the Pac-12 finally ready to play football on Saturday.

Between all COVID-related things, the Pac-12 student-athlete-fueled #WeAreUnited movement, and all of it acting as a backdrop to a divisive presidential election, there has never been a run-up to a college football season quite like this one.

For the athletes, though, one thing that is really sticking out is that each game means so much.

“When you only have six games in a season, the mentality of every game is magnified,” said redshirt junior slot receiver Britain Covey, who will play in his fourth season-opener on Saturday. “I’ve never felt like this going into a season, and it’s especially interesting having watched college football for a month and a half already. It’s made us anxious, on the edge of our seat, and I think most people are just ready to do it. We’re kind of sick of this waiting game.”

Utes release first in-season two-deep

Utah’s first in-season depth chart was released Monday and while there weren’t major surprises (no info on QB just yet), the situation at safety stands out.

Senior Vonte Davis is listed as the starter at free safety, while true freshman Nate Ritchie has won the starting job at strong safety.

Absent from the chart is junior R.J. Hubert, who is returning from a season-ending knee injury suffered during the Pac-12 championship vs. Oregon.

“He’s not himself yet, he’s still a little bit off the pace,” Whittingham said. "R.J. is a fine football player and a guy that, when he’s right, is definitely going to help us. Right now, he’s just trying to get back to the player he was prior to the injury and it’s been a long, hard road for him, but he’s still with us... I’ve got a lot of optimism that at some point down the road, he’ll get back to where he was prior to the injury and start helping us.”

When Utah released an initial depth chart prior to the start of fall camp last month, Hubert was listed as the projected starter at free safety. This, after Whittingham deemed him 100% healthy and restriction-free going into camp.

Meanwhile, Ritchie has impressed and over the last two weeks appeared headed toward securing one safety spot.

Whittingham’s camp-long concern over experience in his defensive backfield bore out on Monday. Of the 10 depth chart positions at cornerback and safety, six of those spots went to freshmen, including highly-touted four-star recruit Clark Phillips III, who will start at one outside cornerback.

The rest of the depth chart was largely benign. At quarterback, Whittingham kept things close to the vest, listing Drew Lisk, Jake Bentley and Cameron Rising as co-starters separated by an “OR.” Whittingham may announce his starter at some point this week, but the more-likely scenario is he lets warmups and the first offensive snap reveal who won the job.

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