College football at the University of Utah has not fully returned to what everyone knew it to be before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, but Saturday was a significant step in the right direction.
With permission from local and state health authorities, the athletic department hosted 6,500 fans at Rice-Eccles Stadium for the Utes’ spring game, marking the first crowd at the 45,807-seat facility since Nov. 30, 2019.
The two sides warming up with fans making noise as noontime approached offered some semblance of normalcy, as did the band playing throughout the afternoon. The sweeping views of the Wasatch Mountains to the east on what was a chilly, brisk, mostly-clear afternoon offered a reminder of the uniqueness of a Utah game-day.
As for the actual football, the fact the Black team defeated the Red team, 21-0, is largely irrelevant because spring games always need to be taken with a grain of salt. Veterans sometimes sit, as was the case Saturday with at least Devin Lloyd, Nick Ford and Brant Kuithe taking in the action from the sideline in street clothes. The coaching staff doesn’t open the entire playbook, and the idea is generally the same as any other spring practice. Get some good work in and don’t get hurt.
Utah’s 73-play effort on Saturday was no different, but the 6,500 present and the rest of the fans watching on Pac-12 Networks should be left thinking about two things.
In the immediate aftermath of the 15th and final spring practice, Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said he believes this incarnation of the Utes is “going to be a complete football team.” Furthermore, he stayed with an ongoing spring storyline by heaping praise upon Charlie Brewer, and with good reason.
Brewer, a graduate transfer from Baylor, looked in complete control Saturday, going 15 for 15 for 151 yards and two touchdowns in the first half. It should be noted that the defense was not allowed to hit Brewer, so a handful of his dropbacks would have resulted in sacks during a real game, but no matter.
Saturday marked Brewer’s unofficial public unveiling in a Utah uniform, and he did not disappoint.
“Clean, just like he’s been all spring,” Whittingham said. “He’s a quick decision-maker, he’s accurate, he gets the ball out of his hands quickly, he does a good job protecting the football. What you saw today is what we’ve been seeing all spring long, so it’s going to be a great battle between him and Cam [Rising] come fall camp for that No. 1 spot. Charlie has really done an outstanding job of integrating into our program.”
Added Brewer: “I think it was fun for us to get out there, especially as an offensive unit and give an exclamation point to the spring. We had some fun and kind of showed a glimpse of what we’ve been doing.”
Five quarterbacks played between the Red and Black teams Saturday, but the best throw of the day belonged to Brewer. On first down from Red 25-yard line late in the second quarter, Brewer went deep down the right sideline for Devaughn Vele. The freshman shook off a defensive pass interference penalty on senior safety Vonte Davis to make the catch for 40 yards to the Black 35-yard line. The placement of Brewer’s pass was outstanding, but Vele’s concentration and athleticism carried the moment.
That was the highlight of a four-catch, 66-yard afternoon for Vele, another player who has gained favorable spring assessments from Whittingham. That fact is worth noting because Vele has clearly emerged at a position of need at Utah, one that Whittingham is very likely to hit the NCAA Transfer Portal in the coming weeks to help fortify following the transfers of Bryan Thompson and Samson Nacua in February.
“The biggest thing I’ve been trying to learn is how to do my job and better understand the offense,” said Vele, a third-year freshman who played in all five games of the COVID-impacted 2020 season. “We have a lot of playmakers on offense, so I just want to add a little mix to it however I can. The spring was an opportunity for me and a bunch of other guys to find how we fit into what will be a really good team coming into the fall.”
Trying to extract anything substantial from Saturday is a tough endeavor, but there were reasons for optimism. Aside from Brewer and Vele, TJ Pledger’s first public appearance in a Utah uniform was productive, the Oklahoma transfer rushing six times for 31 yards. Between Pledger, LSU transfer Chris Curry, redshirt freshman Micah Bernard and incoming four-star freshman Ricky Parks, running back is not a question mark for Whittingham.
No matter what happened, no matter who played well or who didn’t play at all, Saturday offered a two-hour reminder that football matters around here. It mattered before the pandemic, it mattered during the pandemic-impacted 2020 season when fans were not allowed at Rice-Eccles Stadium, and it will matter again when the place is likely sold out for the 65th consecutive once the 2021 season begins.
“Man, I missed that,” junior wide receiver Solomon Enis said of the crowd presence on Saturday. “Today, it’s kind of a sigh of relief. Hopefully, everyone continues to wear their mask, gets vaccinated, does their part so we can see more fans and fill up the stadium. I can’t wait for it to be rocking Sept. 2 against Weber State. We have a lot of work to do, but I can’t wait to see all the fans at Rice-Eccles Stadium.”