Rice-Eccles Stadium has not hosted football in nearly two years. Will the return of a crowd be a factor as University of Utah begins season?

Utes host Weber State on Thursday evening in what is expected to be 65th straight sellout at Rice-Eccles.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes wide receiver Britain Covey (18), grabs a pass and scores on a 91-yard touchdown play, in PAC-12 football acton between Utah Utes and Washington State Cougars at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Saturday, Dec. 19, 2020.

No matter how much of it a football team tries to pump in to a practice session, there is simply no replicating the crowd noise of a college football game. The only way to experience it is to actually experience it.

That factor offers an interesting, albeit likely short-lived, subplot as the 24th-ranked University of Utah opens its season Thursday night vs. Weber State at Rice-Eccles Stadium, whose official capacity is now 51,444 with the completion of the $80 million Ken Garff Red Zone.

Thanks to COVID-19 and the ensuing virus protocols last season, Pac-12 games were played in empty stadiums, which means last season’s freshman class has never played a college game in front of a crowd. Add those players to this season’s freshman class, and that’s a lot of guys who have never played in front of a crowd beyond high school.

The Utes have not played in front of a crowd since the 2019 Alamo Bowl, which drew 60,147 to the Alamodome in San Antonio on New Year’s Eve. The last time Rice-Eccles hosted a crowd for football was a month earlier, senior night against Colorado.

“We’re young in a sense that we haven’t even played in front of a crowd with some of these guys,” said Utah defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley, who referenced the youth of his secondary, which got five games of experience in 2020, but is still very much on the young, inexperienced side of things. “They’re not used to the ebb and flow of the game, the good things that happen in a game and drawing off of a crowd, getting booed by the opposing crowd, or the opposing crowd going nuts if you give up a play. So there is a lot that they have yet to experience and that’s something you can’t really duplicate to prepare for them, until they experience it firsthand.”

Utah does have a few notable exceptions to this notion. Baylor quarterback transfer Charlie Brewer played in front of an announced crowd of 978 at West Virginia in October, but other crowds ranged from a full limited-capacity 11,667 at McLane Stadium in Waco, to 22,700 at Oklahoma.

TJ Pledger, who played three seasons for the Sooners before transferring to Utah in the offseason, did not play in front of a crowd smaller than the 12,440 that showed up to TCU, but the point stands.

Whether a player played in front of no fans or 22,700 fans, things were not normal last season in terms of a traditional game-day atmosphere. When the ball is kicked off Thursday night at Rice-Eccles, everyone may need a moment or two to adjust back to the normalcy.

“I think just getting out in front of a crowd again,” Brewer said after practice on Monday when asked what he was looking forward to most on Thursday. “It’s been a while with the whole COVID thing, so I think it’ll be fun. There will be a lot of energy. I’m sure fans will be really excited to get out there, because they haven’t been there either.”

Any perceived adjustment that needs to be made to a full crowd could be seen as a good problem to have because it means fans are back. Whittingham said recently that playing in empty stadiums last fall was one of the weirdest experiences of a coaching career that spans more than 30 years, but that weirdness won’t be repeated.

As of Monday afternoon, 500 tickets remained for the opener and a Rice-Eccles sellout, the 65th in a row dating back to the 2010 opener vs. Pitt. The new official capacity of 51,444 is likely to be eclipsed thanks to standing-room only sales.

The old capacity of 45,807 was no stranger to getting eclipsed as the appetite for Utes football has only grown as the program has risen to near-annual contention in the Pac-12 South.

In 2019, seven home games drew an average 46.462 fans per contest. The year before, that average figure was 46,332 across six home games.

“We’re scheduled to have a full house on Thursday, and it’s going to be great to get the fans back,” Utes coach Kyle Whittingham said. “With that new south end zone, it’s going to be better than ever.”