Here’s one sign that normalcy is coming back.
The University of Utah will open spring practice Monday. The Utes will conduct the normally prescribed 15 spring practices, and the expectation is things will culminate with a Red-White Game on April 17.
Here are five things to watch for, ponder and consider as the Utes get ready to dive into spring. Utah is coming off a shortened 3-2 season in 2020 with three straight wins to end it. The Utes are slated to open 2020 against Weber State on Sept. 2 at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
1. The QB1 derby
Utah’s quarterbacks room is going to look much different than it did even four months ago.
Out are Jake Bentley (transfer) and Drew Lisk (opted to not return for sixth year). In are much-hyped Power Five transfers Charlie Brewer (Baylor) and Ja’Quinden Jackson (Texas), as well as Peter Costelli (a four-star 2021 recruit). Both Brewer and Jackson committed out of the NCAA Transfer Portal less than one full day after last season on Dec. 19.
What we have coming now is another quarterback competition. For what it’s worth, Brewer threw for 9,700 yards and 63 touchdowns in four seasons at Baylor, while Jackson has yet to throw a collegiate pass.
The X-factor here is Cameron Rising, who won the job out of camp in 2020 but suffered a season-ending shoulder injury on Utah’s 15th offensive snap of the season-opener vs. USC. Rising has been ruled out for spring practice, but is expected to be ready for fall camp.
Kyle Whittingham indicated a couple of weeks back on Pac-12 Networks that this quarterback competition will not be settled in spring, because he and his staff will not be able to fully gauge Rising until the summer.
2. The RB1 competition
From a strictly football standpoint, Ty Jordan’s death on Christmas night left a significant hole in Utah’s backfield. However, even before Jordan’s death, Whittingham was already talking about seeking more help at the position from the transfer portal after Devin Brumfield and Jordan Wilmore opted to transfer.
Whittingham indeed hit the transfer portal for running back help, getting commitments from T.J. Pledger (Oklahoma) and Chris Curry (LSU).
Pledger and Curry will get the spotlight as spring practice begins, but keep in mind that this will be Micah Bernard’s third year at Utah. That’s three years with Whittingham, three years with offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig, three years of understanding what is expected at a position Utah annually excels at. I think that may count for something.
Utah also has four-star freshman Ricky Parks coming in, but depending on how spring ball goes, don’t rule out another trip to the transfer portal to fortify the position, which, even with Pledger and Curry still feels a touch thin.
3. The status of the wide receiver position
No other position has received more attention since the beginning of February.
Redshirt junior Bryan Thompson hit the transfer portal on Feb. 2 and has since decided on Arizona State. Senior Samson Nacua and his 45 career games opted for the portal on Feb. 26 and he has since decided on BYU, as did his brother, Puka, who left the University of Washington.
With Thompson and Nacua gone, Utah’s wide receiver situation is problematic. Britain Covey and Solomon Enis combined for 30 catches, 372 yards and four touchdowns in 2020. Beyond those two, Devaughn Vale caught a couple of passes while playing in all five games as a redshirt freshman, but that’s it as far as returning production at the position goes.
In the same Pac-12 Networks interview referenced above, Whittingham made clear he would look to the transfer portal once spring practice ends in the hopes of finding wide receiver help.
Utah will get Jaylen Dixon back in 2021 after he opted for the transfer portal in October, but how much production the Utes get out of him is unpredictable given he didn’t play at all during the 2020 season.
It should be noted that Utah has and will continue to utilize the tight end as a pass-catching option. Brant Kuithe put off the NFL draft for another season after catching 25 passes for 236 yards as a junior. Cole Fotheringham is also a capable option at tight end.
4. Is R.J. Hubert healthy enough to play a significant role?
Coming off a season-ending knee injury in the 2019 Pac-12 championship game, Hubert is 100% healthy and free of any restrictions as camp opened last fall, Whittingham said.
As camp unfolded, it became clear it wasn’t going to be that simple, Hubert just sliding into one safety spot. He played in four games in 2020, but only two on defense and had not yet returned to full form.
That turned out to be OK, because senior Vonte Davis and true freshman Nate Ritchie both had productive seasons at the safety spots. Davis is back after the NCAA froze the eligibility clock last fall due to the pandemic, but Ritchie is off on his two-year LDS mission. Hubert being fully healthy and ready to go might help the problem of what to do in Ritchie’s absence.
In 2019, Hubert played in 13 games, with 10 appearances on defense, including three starts, finishing with 22 total tackles, a forced fumble and a pass breakup.
5. The status of the linebacker position
Just as at wide receiver, there has been some recent hubbub at linebacker, where Alabama transfer Brandon Kaho committed to Utah, backed off that commitment, and has since pledged to UCLA.
Kaho, a former four-star recruit, saw time at linebacker at Alabama, but had emerged more so as a special teams ace, which is always of use to Whittingham. Would Kaho have played a significant role at linebacker for the Utes? Yes, things projected as such, but it’s hard to label his reneging on Utah as significant seeing as how he never played even a practice snap for the program.
Essentially, Brandon Kaho never happened at Utah. The situation is a wash, and that’s fine, because the Utes have pieces. Devin Lloyd is Utah’s most NFL-ready player, while Nephi Sewell played well in his first season at the position in 2020.
Keep an eye on two four-star freshmen, Ethan Calvert and Mason Tufaga. Calvert, especially, could potentially get on the field immediately, that is the type of talent and ceiling he is bringing to the table.
One more name to toss out there: Redshirt sophomore Andrew Mata’afa, who Whittingham has talked up a few times in the past. Mata’afa has not made a big impact yet. He played in all five games in 2020, but all of those snaps came on special teams.