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Who are the University of Utah football team’s five most-important players?

Utes went 3-2 over a COVID-impacted, five-game schedule in 2020

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes wide receiver Britain Covey (18), grabs a pass and scores on a 91-yard touchdown play against the Washington State Cougars at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Saturday, Dec. 19, 2020.

The start of football season at the University of Utah looms.

The Utes will open fall camp on or about Aug. 4, with the 2021 opener vs. in-state FCS power Weber State slated for Sept. 2 at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

Until Aug. 4, at which time the offseason is over and there will be something real, something tangible to discuss, we are left to consider any number of things about these Utes, who should challenge for the Pac-12 South title.

Among those late-offseason talking points, who are the most important players on the roster? We take a stab at that here. More specifically, we tried to boil it down to Utah’s five most important players.

Britain Covey, redshirt junior, WR/KR/PR: Nobody should be deemed completely irreplaceable, but Covey is probably as close as you can get for Utah football.

The former Timpview High School star is an All-Pac-12 wide receiver and an All-Pac-12 return specialist. He has led the Utes in receiving yards three times in his career (2015, 2018, 2020), while leading them in receptions twice (2015, 43; 2018, 60).

Last season, Covey played in four games, averaging 127.3 all-purpose yards per contest on his way to All-Pac-12 first-team honors as a returner, and honorable mention status as a receiver after hauling in 19 passes for 264 yards and three touchdowns.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Wide Receiver Britain Covey works out during spring practice, Tuesday March 3, 2020

There is an injury history here, so any time Covey gets into space with the ball, people are going to hold their collective breath. Covey tore his right ACL in the 2018 Pac-12 championship game. Not fully healthy as 2019 began, he played in four games that season, then took a redshirt. He also did not start the delayed 2020 season healthy after dealing with a hamstring injury, but he was back, he was electric, the highlight being 210 all-purpose yards in a come-from-behind win at Colorado.

Nick Ford, redshirt junior, C: Quite simply, Ford’s value along the offensive line cannot be overstated. Over the last three seasons, the All-Pac-12 lineman has seen starts at all five positions, including 13 at right guard during Utah’s 11-3 campaign in 2019, and four at center last season.

Those four starts at center in 2020 came after veteran starter Orlando Umana was injured in the opener vs. USC. Ford entered spring camp as the projected starter at center, and that has not changed as fall approaches. Umana and his 40 games of collegiate experience hit the NCAA Transfer Portal on June 29.

(Photo courtesy of Utah Athletics) Utah offensive lineman Nick Ford (55) goes against defensive lineman Mika Tafua during fall camp

The hope is that Ford will play a full season at center, but his greatest value is that his versatility would, in theory, allow him to switch offensive line spots if there were depth or injury concerns.

Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham has said he believes Ford’s future at the NFL level is at one of the three interior offensive line spots, meaning left guard, center, or right guard.

Devin Lloyd, redshirt junior, LB: The anchor of Utah’s generally stout, run-stopping defense, Lloyd has a case as not only the most important player on the roster but the best player on the roster.

Lloyd slid into a starting linebacker spot on the aforementioned 11-win team in 2019 but morphed into a more-important, more-capable leader in 2020 when he had a team-leading 48 tackles, including 10 for a loss, and two sacks on his way to All-America status from The Sporting News and Phil Steele.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes linebacker Devin Lloyd (0) pulls Washington State Cougars quarterback Jayden de Laura (4) to the ground for a quarterback sack, in PAC-12 football acton between Utah Utes and Washington State Cougars at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Saturday, Dec. 19, 2020.

A finalist last season for the Butkus Award, given annually to the nation’s top linebacker, Lloyd has twice been named All-Pac-12 honors, including a first-team nod last season.

With Lloyd anchoring, Utah finished No. 1 in the Pac-12 and 11th nationally last season in rushing defense at 107.8 yards per game.

Brandon McKinney, senior, S: Whittingham has been aggressive in using the transfer portal to fill in positions of need. Safety was one of those positions of need.

Vonte Davis was a pleasant surprise as a first-year starter in 2020, finishing with 16 total tackles and a pair of interceptions in five games. He is now entrenched at one safety spot.

That other safety spot is a bit of a question mark. Promising freshman Nate Ritchie is out of the mix until 2023 while serving an LDS Church mission, while RJ Hubert is likely out for the season after suffering a knee injury in the spring game.

(Rick Scuteri | AP) Washington defensive back Brandon McKinney (23) in the first half during an NCAA college football game against Arizona, Saturday, Oct. 12, 2019, in Tucson, Ariz.

Say hello to Brandon McKinney, a 44-game veteran across four seasons at the University of Washington before committing to Whittingham on May 19. Unless Cole Bishop, Kamo’i Latu, or another young guy lacking experience is going to take a significant step forward, McKinney is likely going to slide right in opposite Davis at the other safety spot.

McKinney’s lone career start came in the 2019 Rose Bowl vs. Ohio State, in place of injured All-Pac-12 safety Taylor Rapp.

Whoever the No. 2 quarterback winds up being: The old football adage that you’re only one snap away from the backup quarterback being pressed into duty is all fun and games until it happens to your team.

Cameron Rising won the job coming out of camp in 2020, but was lost for the season on the 14th offensive snap of the opener to a shoulder injury. South Carolina transfer Jake Bentley took over for the final four games, which were a mixed bag as the Utes finished with three straight wins to go 3-2.

If Rising is a full go for camp, as a recent Instagram photo indicates he is, or will be, he will engage in a quarterback competition with highly touted Baylor graduate transfer Charlie Brewer. The guy who gets the short end of that battle will be one snap away.

(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.

Whoever winds up as No. 2, Whittingham probably has to feel good about it. Brewer’s resume is well-documented, while Rising has already won the job at Utah under this coaching staff once. This staff trusts Rising, even if he isn’t ultimately the starter.

Food for thought: How healthy, how capable Rising is coming into camp will be a primary early-August storyline. He is coming off major surgery, doesn’t have much live collegiate experience to begin with, and now has to outdo a guy who has 9,700 passing yards and 60-plus touchdown passes at the Power Five level to win the job again.

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