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Utah football finished 2020 strong and optimism will be present for 2021, but there is a gaping hole to fill

Utes won three straight to close the shortened season and should have most of their core back next year, but the long-term effects of Ty Jordan’s death — on the field and off — remain to be seen

(Rick Bowmer | AP) Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham looks on during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Oregon State Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020, in Salt Lake City.

Kyle Whittingham was hoping for a sense of normalcy moving forward.

A normal offseason program, the normal 15 spring practices across March and April, a normal summer schedule, normal fall camp, and a normal 12-game season beginning Sept. 2 vs. Weber State.

That normalcy is not coming any time soon following the death of Pac-12 Offensive Freshman of the Year Ty Jordan on Christmas night, which will produce questions both on and off the field. Assuming the COVID-19 pandemic allows it, the Utes will eventually get back to focusing on football at spring practice after producing an optimistic 2020 season.

Clamoring for things to simply go back to ordinary before Jordan’s death was understandable, because Whittingham, his coaching staff, and his players got quite the opposite over the last six months, which included a five-game regular season.

Things may not have been normal this season, but those five games Utah got may very well prove to be beneficial down the line as the Utes start thinking about the 2021 season.

“These five games here gave, in particular our true freshmen, as well as our redshirt freshmen that hadn’t played much at all, a great foundation and exposure to the speed and competitiveness at the Power Five level, and what it takes to play,” Whittingham said following Utah’s season finale, a 45-28 come-from-behind victory over Washington State to give the Utes a third straight win and a 3-2 record.

Here is a look back at things, sprinkled with a little bit of what’s coming down the pike, by position group.

Quarterback

Cameron Rising came on late in fall camp to win the starting job over Jake Bentley, but Bentley became the starter anyway once Rising was lost for the season 14 offensive snaps into the opener with an injured shoulder.

Bentley’s play improved under a short timeframe, but it remained uneven throughout as he completed 62.1% of his passes for 882 yards, six touchdowns and six interceptions. His final pass in a Utah uniform, an ugly interception late in the second quarter against Washington State, led to his benching as Drew Lisk engineered a second-half comeback.

Bentley is in the NCAA Transfer Portal, and Utah’s quarterback room appears stacked with Rising, who will miss spring practice with the shoulder injury, joined by Baylor transfer Charlie Brewer, Texas transfer Ja’Quinden Jackson and four-star recruit Peter Costelli. Another spring-and-summer quarterback competition is likely on deck.

“You look at Charlie’s junior and sophomore years, he was very prolific,” Whittingham said. “We’re ecstatic that Charlie chose us and he’ll be here in a few weeks. He’s a guy that just has one year left, so we’ll see in spring. It should be a great display in spring watching these guys perform.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes quarterback Cameron Rising (7)as the Utah Utes host the USC Trojans, NCAA football at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020.

Running back

From a strictly-football standpoint, Jordan’s death leaves Utah with a significant hole at a position that is generally considered a strength of the offense.

The depth at running back currently consists of redshirt freshman Micah Bernard and incoming three-star recruit Ricky Parks. Even with Jordan, the Utes were already thin at the position after junior Devin Brumfield and sophomore Jordan Wilmore opted to transfer with one game remaining.

It feels like a certainty that Whittingham will hit the transfer portal at some point this offseason in an effort to find more running back help.

Wide receiver/tight end

First thought, Utah’s offense is more dynamic, more versatile when Britain Covey is healthy, as he showed over the final three games.

Beyond that, Brant Kuithe led the team in receptions (25) and was second in receiving yards (236). The bad news is, maybe Kuithe leaves for the NFL draft. The good news is, if he does, Utah has two other tight ends it likes, Cole Fotheringham and Dalton Kincaid.

Between the tight ends, and the big-play capabilities of Covey, Solomon Enis and Bryan Thompson, there is reason to be very optimistic that Utah’s passing game can be effective in 2021, no matter which quarterback wins the job out of camp.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah tight end Brant Kuithe (80) runs for the Utes, in Alamo Bowl football action, between the Utes and the Texas Longhorns, in San Antonio, Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2019.

Offensive line

A young group that got better as the season went along, thanks in no small part to the versatility of a veteran, All-Pac-12 offensive lineman Nick Ford, a redshirt junior who became the primary center with Orlando Umana injured and out for most of the season.

Whittingham said on his final weekly radio show that he envisions Ford staying at center in 2021.

To Whittingham’s point about these five games offering a great foundation, redshirt freshman Sataoa Laumea started all five games at right guard, classmate Keaton Bills started four times at left guard, and true freshman Jaren Kump started all five games at right tackle.

The big factor to watch for in spring ball will be Bills vs. redshirt sophomore Braeden Daniels at left guard. That was a big point of emphasis during fall camp, and figures to be again. Daniels, for what it’s worth, started the final against Washington State.

Defensive line

Not as much continuity as the offensive line, but certainly effective as the backbone of Utah’s No. 1-ranked rushing defense in the Pac-12 at 107.8 yards per game. The Utes also finished ranked No. 2 in the Pac-12 in total defense.

“We couldn’t be more proud of the team, but looking at what our defense did, what they lost, the guys that came in with no experience, true freshmen right out of high school, and we were second in the league in defense prior to this game,” Whittingham said. “If you had told me at the end of the season that we’d be No. 2 in defense, I would’ve said you’re crazy. Credit to Coach [Morgan] Scalley and the rest of the staff for getting those guys coached up.”

Mika Tafua was excellent as a redshirt junior defensive end, registering a team-high three sacks to go along with 14 tackles. Maxs Tupai played a ton at the other defensive end, but whether he opts to come back for another year is up in the air.

Interior line depth is something to pay attention to moving forward, as is this: Whittingham has consistently talked up the youth at the end spots, specifically true freshmen Xavier Carlton and Van Filinger. Those two will figure into the plans come spring practice.

Oregon State running back Artavis Pierce (21) is brought down by Utah defensive end Mika Tafua (42) during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Corvallis, Ore., Saturday, Oct. 12, 2019. (AP Photo/Amanda Loman)

Linebackers

Nobody on Utah’s roster with NFL aspirations helped himself more than Devin Lloyd, who had a team-leading 48 tackles to go along with a couple of sacks. Lloyd is Utah’s biggest NFL draft decision, and no one should be shocked if he decides to go.

Beyond Lloyd, Nephi Sewell looked comfortable throughout his first full-time work at the position, while true freshman Sione Fotu was a bit of a revelation in five games.

Lloyd returning would make things a lot less complicated at this position, but either way, expect four-star freshman Ethan Calvert to play an immediate role in the Utes’ defensive plans moving forward.

Secondary

This was the biggest question mark entering the season. An entirely-new unit with zero starts between them, but there should be few, if any complaints about how things went.

Cornerback JT Broughton and free safety Vonte Davis both stand out as guys who probably played better than anticipated. Both freshmen in the secondary, cornerback Clark Phillips III and strong safety Nate Ritchie, have promising futures, although Ritchie is going on a two-year church mission and will not be back playing until 2023.

Two offseason questions, but there might be one answer: One, who steps in for Ritchie, who clearly has assumed control of that strong safety position. Two, what is the status of R.J. Hubert, who sat out this season as he continued to recover from a leg injury suffered in the 2019 Pac-12 title game.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes cornerback Clark Phillips III, scores after intercepting a pass, in PAC-12 football acton between Utah Utes and Washington State Cougars at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Saturday, Dec. 19, 2020.

Special teams

Jadon Redding survived a fall-camp place-kicking competition vs. Jordan Noyes, then went on to produce an All-Pac-12 season, hitting all eight of his field goal attempts and all 17 of his extra points. Redding, a sophomore, should be locked into that position in 2021.

Punter is a bit of a question mark with Ben Lennon opting to transfer following his averaging 38.9 yards per punt on 14 punts. Whittingham could hit the transfer portal, junior college ranks, or look for a late high school commit to solve that problem, although redshirt walk-on freshman Jared March performed well in the season finale vs. Washington State, averaging 42.4 yards on five punts.

When healthy, Covey showed he is Utah’s top option to return kickoffs (28.3 yards per return on four attempts) and punts (11.7 yards per return on 21 attempts, which included one touchdown).

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