There is more to the job description for Kyle Whittingham and his 10 assistant coaches than merely coaching the University of Utah football team.
In looking after a roster of 100-plus student-athletes, Whittingham and his staff need to be dialed in on what’s going on in their lives, not just athletically, but academically and even socially. Whittingham and his various position coaches being on top of all these things helps to ensure mental and emotional stability for their players.
“Part of our jobs as coaches is to be in tune with them, their lives and what they have going on,” Whittingham said earlier this week. “We need to be there, not only to coach football, but to be there for support in general.”
Mental and emotional stability of student-athletes is an increasingly-relevant topic in college sports, but in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, there is an argument to be made that it has never been more important, especially inside the Eccles Football Center.
Consider what the Utes have had to deal with since mid-March. The onset of the pandemic led to the cancellation of the final three-quarters of spring practice. Furthermore, players had gone home for spring break after the first three practices, and did not return to campus once the remainder of the spring semester moved online.
UTAH VS. NO. 20 USC
At Rice-Eccles Stadium
When • Saturday, 8:30 p.m.
TV • ESPN
Utah’s original 12-game schedule was altered to create a 10-game, conference-only slate in July. Two weeks after that, the Pac-12 mandated no sports would be played until at least Jan. 1. With the introduction of daily-antigen testing earlier this fall, the Pac-12 circled back, announcing on Sept. 24 a seven-game schedule to begin Nov. 7.
The Utes, infamously, never began that seven-game season and stand as one of four FBS programs to not yet play this fall. Of those four, Utah is the only Power Five yet to play.
To add to the troubles, Utah has gone through full game-week preparations each of the last two weeks, only to have games canceled on Friday due to COVID-19 positives and ensuing contact-tracing protocols.
“It’s been tough, particularly for the players,” Whittingham said. “Coaches are probably a little more emotionally able to handle that, but players, they’re competitive, they’re looking forward to competing and to have the rough pulled out from under them at the last minute two weekends in a row is difficult. They’ve been resilient, they show a great deal of resolve when they come back, so we’re in a good place right now mentally.”
Whittingham noted his team is in a good place mentally earlier this week because the bad news appears to be behind the Utes.
After one positive test on Friday helped lead to its latest season-opening attempt getting canceled at UCLA, testing has gone well for the Utes since. They practiced Monday and Tuesday, and while there was optimism at this point last week toward getting a game played, Utah’s COVID situation at this time is looking much better than it did last week.
With everything still fluid, there is renewed optimism that Utah actually plays 20th-ranked USC on Saturday evening at Rice-Eccles Stadium (8:30 p.m. ESPN).
“I feel like guys on the team, this could easily get to them mentally, psychologically, it could put them in a state of depression, but you have to look at it from the positive side,” redshirt junior linebacker Devin Lloyd said. “That’s where leadership comes into play, but we have to understand that we’ll hit the field eventually. This is just a little adversity, that’s all. More than anything, we all have to understand that we will have our opportunity to play.”