Catching up with Kyle Whittingham: Ty Jordan’s death, 2021 roster management, NCAA Transfer Portal success

Utah’s head coach expects 13 of 17 seniors from 2020 to return in 2021 thanks to eligibility freeze

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Utah Utes warm up as they prepare to host the USC Trojans, NCAA football at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020.

The University of Utah football team got through a truncated five-game 2020 season, but as the second semester unfolds and the Utes begin their offseason program, things are not nearly back to normal.

There are still stringent testing and medical protocols on a daily basis, but more importantly, the Utes are still mourning the death of Ty Jordan.

Last season’s Pac-12 Offensive Freshman of the Year, Jordan died on Christmas night from what authorities in Denton, Texas have ruled was an accidental gunshot wound. The incident happened during semester break, which means the Utes were not able to be together to console each other, save for a quick in-and-out trip to Texas for Jordan’s memorial service on Jan. 6 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington.

The Utes are together now, going through conditioning and weightlifting, readying for spring practice in early March. That part of the equation, the football part, offers normalcy, but having to grieve a teammate at the same time does not.

“Ty is still very heavy on our minds,” Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham told The Salt Lake Tribune this past week. “The grieving process has been tough. We lost a teammate, we lost a member of the family, and we’re trying to heal from that. The only thing that will get that completely healed is continuing to move forward.”

Whittingham has never been one to look back, so his intention to plow forward, even in the face of an unspeakable loss, comes as no surprise. Plowing forward includes getting his roster in order and on that front, there is positive news.

The NCAA froze the eligibility clock for fall athletes because of the COVID-19 pandemic, meaning anyone with senior eligibility in 2020 is allowed to come back for another year in 2021. Utah’s 2020 roster listed 17 players with senior eligibility. Of those 17, Whittingham confirmed to The Tribune that 13 of them have opted to return in 2021.

The four players opting not to return are quarterbacks Jake Bentley (transferred to South Alabama) and Drew Lisk (ended career after five seasons at Utah), plus defensive tackle Pita Tonga (transferred to Hawaii) and tight end Mufi Hill-Hunt (currently in NCAA Transfer Portal).

Only four of 17 seniors opting not to become “super” seniors at Utah means key two-deep guys like safety Vonte Davis, wide receiver Samson Nacua, and defensive end Maxs Tupai will be back for one more run.

Whittingham was cautious to note that roster dynamics are always fluid, and things could still change, especially after spring practice ends, but for now, retaining 13 of 17 seniors qualifies as a haul.

Whittingham may have had players leave, but he also continued to use the transfer portal to his advantage. Within 24 hours of the season ending on Dec. 19, Utah got commitments from a pair of transfer quarterbacks in Charlie Brewer (Baylor) and Ja’Quinden Jackson (Texas). More recently, the staff pulled two running back transfers out of the portal in Oklahoma’s T.J. Pledger and LSU’s Chris Curry.

That’s four Power Five transfers, two each at positions of need, all of whom project to be in the immediate mix for reps once spring ball commences. Furthermore, Whittingham going to the portal to fill holes shows that he is willing to adjust to the times. The portal is not only essentially free agency, but how roster problems get solved quickly in this day and age.

“One thing for certain is that the transfer portal is a level playing field, no one is at a big advantage or disadvantage by using it,” Whittingham said. “Embracing it is critical because it’s here to stay in our opinion. It’s changed the recruiting process because now, maybe you’re holding back some scholarships in case you need to go to the transfer portal at a position.

“We were able to get four quality players from the portal because we saved some scholarships just in case.”