The Utes are emerging from a coronavirus outbreak, slowly regaining their health and their optimism. Starters are returning to practice. It’s possible that the season will get underway this Saturday vs. 20th-ranked USC at Rice-Eccles Stadium (8:30 p.m. ESPN).
But after having lived through the late cancellation against Arizona two weeks ago and again against UCLA last week, no one is talking definitively. Still, coach Kyle Whittingham spoke with a clearly different tone than he had in the past few weeks during his 12-minute media session Monday. He spoke like a guy who believed a football game will get played.
“Things are trending in the right direction for us, as far as getting back to health and getting guys back on the practice field, so that’s encouraging,” Whittingham said. “Right now, all our efforts are geared toward getting ready for the USC Trojans.”
Utah was already conducting daily-antigen testing, but when the Arizona game was canceled, the athletic department introduced the more accurate PCR testing each day as well. In the wake of the UCLA cancellation Friday, Utes athletic director Mark Harlan said the football team had zero positive tests last Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, but on Friday, hours before the team was to board a Los Angeles-bound charter, one positive test came back. The resulting contact tracing forced so many players into quarantine that the team couldn’t meet the Pac-12′s 53-player threshold to play.
The Utes did not practice over the weekend, but continued to test. The fact that they were able to practice Monday would indicate that testing on Saturday and Sunday went well, while Whittingham said Tuesday morning that practice was on for later in the afternoon.
One important factor in all of this is that while Utah’s roster may not be completely whole by the time Saturday night comes, it will be a lot closer than what the Utes could have trotted out last week at the Rose Bowl.
Whittingham indicated last week that scout-team players were getting first-team reps and walk-ons were preparing to play.
“That is becoming less and less the case,” Whittingham said. “We’ve got that in a few spots now, but for the most part, we’re in pretty good shape. It’s still not perfect, but we’re in a much better spot than we’ve been in at any point in the last two weeks, so we feel like we’ve got ourselves back in a good situation. There’s still a few guys that we’re missing, but hopefully we get those guys back shortly.”
Whittingham did not offer specifics, but he did say "active cases have run their course for the most part.”
On Friday, Harlan said the football program was dealing with 17 confirmed positive cases, plus 11 other program members in quarantine due to contact-tracing protocols.