With the vaccination rollout in the state of Utah ongoing and the latter months of the COVID-19 pandemic hopefully upon us, there is no media access at University of Utah spring football practice.
No access means there is no way of really knowing which players have taken steps forward and which players are stuck in neutral. Simply put, if you want to learn something about these Utes, for now, you are going to have to take head coach Kyle Whittingham, his coaching staff and their players at their collective word during thrice-per-week Zoom calls.
With that said, late Friday afternoon, Utah conducted its first live scrimmage of the spring, which lasted 130 plays, plus special teams situations, which meant, per Whittingham, the Utes went for roughly 170 plays.
Whittingham came off the practice field and addressed the media on Zoom for more than 12 minutes. During his introductory comments, he took an optimistic tone, not only in regard to Friday’s scrimmage, but in regard to the 60% of spring ball that has been contested, so we’ll go with that.
Whittingham believes things are going well, maybe very well in fact, and frankly, there is no reason to believe otherwise with the Utes returning the vast majority of starting-level talent from last season’s truncated, COVID-impacted team.
“I feel like we’ve made a lot of progress, but still a lot of work to do, obviously” Whittingham said. “You’re never where you want to be, you’re always looking to improve on things. We certainly have a laundry list of things we want to improve on, but I would say we’re in a really good spot for where we’re at with six practices left.”
Taking Whittingham’s optimism at face value is one thing, but trying to glean anything tangible is another, especially at positions where there is great interest.
The greatest interest is at quarterback, but that situation will be what it is until injured redshirt sophomore incumbent Cameron Rising’s shoulder allows him to go full-bore.
On March 26, Whittingham said Baylor graduate transfer Charlie Brewer is “quite a bit ahead of everybody else” in terms of the competition for the starting. That did not change Friday afternoon, and it isn’t going to change unless Rising is ready to go for fall camp.
“Charlie Brewer got the vast majority of the reps, and that’s been the case all spring, and that will be the case these last six practices,” Whittingham said. “The other reps were divided almost equally among the other four, Ja’Quinden Jackson and Peter Costelli getting a little bit more than the other two.”
Whittinghamn has remained optimistic that Rising will be ready for fall camp, saying on Friday that assuming that is the case, he and Brewer will be on equal footing as the QB competition essentially begins in earnest. Whittingham indicated as much on March 26.
Whittingham is pleased with the running back situation, pegging redshirt sophomore Micah Bernard as the No. 1 guy, but with Oklahoma transfer TJ Pledger and LSU transfer Chris Curry battling as Nos. 2 and 3. There may be numbers attached to those three, but Whittingham said earlier this week that it is likely to be a running back-by-committee approach, at least going into fall camp. Those three, Whittingham said, are getting 75% of the reps right now, with four-star commit Ricky Parks arriving on the scene this summer.
Friday was a full work day, which means veteran guys like Devin Lloyd, Britain Covey, Maxs Tupai and Mika Tafua all participated. That may not be the case during the Red-White Game on April 17, but on Friday, everyone got some work in.
Whittingham singled out freshman safety Cole Bishop as being a pleasant surprise, comparing him to Nate Ritchie, who showed up last season as a true freshman, made an immediate impact, and wound up starting a bunch of games.
On and on this went for another few minutes, Whittingham speaking positively about his team, and really, there is no reason not to. Spring ball is about teaching, it is about improvement, it is about trying to decide what you have, but also what you need ahead of fall camp.
Whittingham has a lot, but he could also use some more help, namely at wide receiver, a position which is thin at Utah, but he has made no bones about hitting the NCAA Transfer Portal in the coming months to deal with that issue.
All told, Friday qualified as a good day at Utah. One hundred twenty players are practicing right now — a number Whittingham has never had before — thanks to COVID backlogging, and they all got reps.
“It’s a situation where every single guy that is practicing and is healthy got an opportunity and got a chance to have reps,” Whittingham said. “Obviously, some got more than others, but everybody got an opportunity to show what they can do, so we knew we’d be somewhere in the 115-130 range, we ended up on the high end of that range.”