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Six minutes into his first meeting with reporters as fall camp opened at the University of Utah, Kyle Whittingham set a tone for the rest of camp, and potentially for the entire season.
Who needed to step up, the head coach was asked, if the Utes were to win the Pac-12 South title?
Whittingham went with the greatest hits.
Linebacker Devin Lloyd, versatile offensive lineman Nick Ford and tight end Brant Kuithe all had legitimate cases to enter the NFL draft, yet all deferred their pro football dreams. Mika Tafua has twice been named an All-Pac-12 defensive end. Solomon Enis is a fourth-year junior wide receiver with 33 games under his belt, including nine starts. Charlie Brewer is not a veteran of Utah’s program, but he is a veteran, having quarterbacked Baylor 44 times across four seasons.
“We have no shortage of leadership on this team,” Whittingham said. “This feels a lot like the ‘19 team in a lot of regards.”
Whittingham’s 2019 team is the high-water mark for Utah football as a member of the Pac-12. So any reference to 2019 was going to draw attention.
For Lloyd, Ford, and Kuithe — all of whom put NFL dreams on hold — the goal goes beyond that. All three have played in two Pac-12 championship games with nothing to show for it, all three have an intimate understanding of what it takes to get back there, all three want to know what it feels like to play in a Rose Bowl.
“More than anything, I want to win,” Lloyd said during spring practice. “I want to leave with a championship, with a nice little ring on my finger, hopefully a couple of rings. I want to bring guys along with me, too. I love helping others, I’ve said that before. I know this team wants to be great, I know I’m not the only one on the team that wants to be great.”
Is this the year?
It’s not the first time the question has been asked.
The 2015 team started 6-0 and rose to No. 3 in the AP Poll, but finished 10-4 with a trip to the Las Vegas Bowl. The 2018 team overcame key injuries to win the Pac-12 South outright for the first time, but managed just three points in a Pac-12 championship game loss with a Rose Bowl berth at stake.
In 2019, with running back Zack Moss, defensive linemen Bradlee Anae and Leki Fotu and cornerback Julian Blackmon all opting against the NFL draft after the 2018 season and returning among a group of more than 30 seniors, Utah won the Pac-12 South outright, registered an 11-1 regular season, and peaked at No. 5 in the College Football Playoff rankings. Seven Utes from the 2019 team were selected in the 2020 NFL draft, while another handful, including quarterback Tyler Huntley, were at least invited to training camps.
Maybe comparing teams isn’t entirely fair, but Whittingham can see similarities between this year’s squad and the Pac-12 South winners of 2019.
“It’s leadership, it’s depth, it’s talent,” Whittingham said when asked about the parallels. “We had a lot of talent. My guess is, we’ll see the same production in the draft with this group. It’s not exactly like that team. Every team has its own personality and way of going about their business, but there are a lot of similarities.”
One obvious similarity is those NFL draft decisions, specifically the decision of a handful of veteran leaders believing something special may be at hand, and not wanting to miss out.
After finishing a five-game COVID-impacted 2020 season as an All-American and a Butkus Award finalist, no one would have blamed Lloyd for leaving school. He was getting late-second and early-third round draft grades as he sought feedback, but a full 12 games of film as a junior would have been helpful. Ford also had third-round grades, and Kuithe had done plenty in three seasons to warrant real draft consideration.
The lack of a full season, not winning the Pac-12 South, finishing the five-game season at 3-2, and the unorthodox nature of the 2020 season were all sticking points that all three players have mentioned in the recent past.
So, what do those guys see in the 2021 team that leads them to believe this feels like 2019, that something special can be accomplished down the road?
“I would say the chemistry of the team, but also the experience,” Lloyd said after a recent practice. “A lot of guys are returning. You can say that for a lot of teams in the Pac-12, but I think we have a willingness to want to be great. There’s a championship mentality within all position groups of this team. Everybody understands the goal, everybody understands how to get to that goal and a lot of us have been to the championship game, so we know what it takes to get there.”
Added Ford: “There’s leaders in every room. Not only that, the young guys are starting to understand they can lead each other and build from the bottom up, because we’re only as strong as our weakest link. It’s just a mentality.”
Ford went on to note that he believes Utah understands what it is to play football as a complete team, 11 on offense and 11 on defense. His point was that the offense has a firm understanding of its job, the defense of its job, and there isn’t a whole lot of bewilderment these days inside the practice facility. There is leadership, there is talent, all of it fostering a high level of mental fortitude.
Within that leadership, within that collection of talent, a look at the projected depth will reveal no obvious, glaring issues at any one position.
Brewer has emerged as Utah’s top option at the most important position on the field, quarterback, but if something happens where Whittingham has to go to his backup, at least Cam Rising is a fourth-year collegian now in his third year operating offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig’s system.
There are four running backs fighting for carries, a healthy numbers of options, but a number that is likely to get pared down among a trio of transfers in Chris Curry (LSU), TJ Pledger (Oklahoma), Tavion Thomas (Independence Community College), plus third-year redshirt freshman Micah Bernard.
When fall camp came to a close on Aug. 21, Enis indicated to reporters that Utah has at least five wide receivers it trusts at the moment. Enis, Britain Covey, Devaughn Vele, Oklahoma transfer Theo Howard, and Jaylen Dixon are the five, while Covey and Whittingham have voiced optimism that the number could reach seven or eight if things break right.
Even if it’s only five, Utah likes to utilize the tight end as a pass-catching option. Enter Kuithe, fourth-year junior Cole Fotheringham, and Dalton Kincaid, an FCS All-American in 2019 at the University of San Diego.
The linebacker corps is anchored by Lloyd, the cornerbacks are young, but proved capable last season, and Whittingham answered a significant question at safety by inserting University of Washington transfer Brandon McKinney, opposite Vonte Davis.
On down the list this goes to every position on the field. Veterans, talent, depth, options, Utah has all those factors working in its favor.
“I think there has to be a leader in every position group for it to be similar to that team, and I think that’s kind of what we have,” said Covey, who has been a part of three Pac-12 South winners, as his Utes career dates back to 2015, when Utah shared the South title with USC. “You could go through every position group and name a veteran who has become a leader and bought into the team and the classic Whittingham mentality. I think that’s what’s similar to the 2019 team; you could go through every position group and name one or two leaders.
“It’s too early to speak on how you’ll perform, but you can speak on the players, and that’s what I have confidence in. I’ll talk about the players on this team all day long.”
The time is nearing to speak on how Utah performs. The Utes will be favored in their first four games (Weber State, at BYU, at San Diego State, Washington State), then comes a critical matchup at USC.
If Utah finally wins at the LA Coliseum to move to 5-0, it takes control of the Pac-12 South. If Utah beats Arizona State at home the following week to move to 6-0, it is in total control of the South, and the fan base will justifiably begin dreaming about more than just the Pac-12 South.
If things get to that point, fans can start dreaming about more than just a comparison to 2019.