Utah football captains Britain Covey, Devin Lloyd and Mika Tafua were swapping text messages over the weekend.
The Utes had not played to their potential. They had not played particularly well at all during their 1-2 start to the season. So in the aftermath of the Utes’ 33-31 triple-overtime loss at San Diego State, with the season arriving at a crossroads earlier than anyone imagined, the Utes’ captains sought to do something about it
They came to an agreement that there needed to be a team meeting. More specifically, a players-only meeting. No coaches, no staff, just the 100-plus players on the roster in a room in an effort to talk some things out, get on the same page, and decide what they want the remainder of this season to be.
“We had quite a few people talk, I think it was great,” Covey said Monday afternoon following a team walkthrough. “It wasn’t a depressing meeting, it was ‘This is us against the world. This is this room against the world.’ It takes some of the burden off.”
An approximately 45-minute players-only meeting took place on Sunday.
Quarterback Cam Rising, another captain, added: “There was definitely some anger, just because you’re not getting the results you’re looking for, and just really some poor play and poor execution on the offense’s part, so we have to tighten things up and hit those things on the head. I think we have a good idea of what we need to get done.”
Rising referenced the fact that a players-only meeting can help guys forget about the hoopla surrounding a season, which is good because the hoopla late in Saturday’s game and ever since has zeroed in on his position.
With 5:24 to go in the third quarter against the Aztecs, Kyle Whittingham benched quarterback Charlie Brewer and inserted his backup. Rising proceeded to go 19 for 32 for 153 yards and three touchdowns, dragging the Utes to overtime after trailing by two scores when he entered.
The prevailing assumption coming out of Saturday was that Rising would start this week vs. Washington State. Then on Monday, Brewer told Whittingham of his intention to leave the program. Brewer slept on it, then went back to Whittingham on Tuesday morning to reaffirm his intention of leaving.
For what it’s worth, Tafua on Tuesday said that Brewer was part of the Sunday players-only meeting. Lloyd said Brewer was not among the players to speak during the meeting.
“I thought it went very well actually,” Lloyd said. “A lot of the older guys discussed how we felt as far as how the season has gone so far and what we want to get out of it. I thought it was very productive. There was a little more buy-in from everybody, and I think that showed today at practice as well.”
Added Tafua: “I think there was a lot of clarity coming out of that meeting in terms of what is expected of everyone. I think it was a beneficial meeting. It was something that was needed.”
Whittingham was unaware a players-only meeting was even taking place Sunday. Neither the head coach nor his assistants encouraged players to meet. The captains told Whittingham about it after the fact and, as he understood it, the meeting wound up being a positive. Whittingham believed the meeting showed there is a lot of care, a lot of investment from his players that they would take those steps.
“Coach Whitt has always talked about how he wants his teams to be player-led,” Covey said. “I think that he finds a good balance of knowing when what he says will have an impact and knowing when what he says won’t have as big an impact as having a captain saying it. That just comes from experience.”
Whether or not the players-only meeting will have a tangible effect on the week of practice and the Washington State matchup, let alone the rest of the season, remains to be seen, but one thing is clear as the Utes prepare to open Pac-12-play at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
Utah, more than any other team in the Pac-12, needs a win this weekend.
Preseason expectations for this group were large but things have not gone as planned. The offensive line has not played well, the normally-staunch rushing defense has let BYU’s Jaren Hall and San Diego State’s Lucas Johnson run wild in consecutive weeks, special teams has let up 100-yard kickoff return touchdowns twice in three games and now, their starting quarterback has left the program after three games. Rising is now the unquestioned starter at the most important position on the field, but he also has attempted all of 40 career passes, which is 40 more than any other quarterback on the roster.
Take all of that, add in new season-ending injuries to two defensive starters in redshirt senior defensive tackle Viane Moala and All-Pac-12 sophomore cornerback JT Broughton, and it’s going to be fascinating to see what these Utes come up with against the Cougars.
Covey noted on Monday that he’s never experienced a season like this, where Utah started off rough, but everything the Utes want, the Pac-12 South, the Pac-12 championship, a Rose Bowl berth, is still there for the taking. To his point, the redshirt junior was 10-0 for his career in nonconference games before dropping the last two to BYU and San Diego State.
“We know we have everything still in front of us, and we’re going to make sure we do everything we can to get those goals accomplished,” Rising said.
“Our goal has not changed at all, and our goal is still very much in sight,” Lloyd said. “We’re very capable of achieving it. We haven’t played our best ball, we haven’t gotten anywhere near our potential in the last couple of games. We plan on changing that and that’s why we were so urgent about the players meeting and getting everybody bought in and getting back to the basics. We can still attain our goals.”