Kyle Whittingham and the Utes hope football can be ‘therapy’ after defensive back Aaron Lowe’s death

Utes play a critical Pac-12 South contest Saturday night vs. USC at the LA Coliseum

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) The University of Utah football team mourns the loss of fellow student-athlete Aaron Lowe during a candlelight vigil at the A Ray Olpin Student Union southwest lawn, Sept. 29, 2021.

When Kyle Whittingham’s phone rings at an off-hour, it is never for anything good.

On the morning of Dec. 26, 2020, Whittingham’s phone rang at 5:30 a.m. News of Ty Jordan’s death from an accidental, self-inflicted gunshot wound was waiting on the other end. On the morning of Sept. 26, Whittingham’s phone rang at 6 a.m. News of Aaron Lowe’s death, which was later investigated as a homicide, was waiting on the other end.

“The first thing on your mind is, ‘Oh, no, what’s happened?’” Whittingham said. “Then, you get the worst possible news. It’s challenging and it takes everything you’ve got to overcome it.”

How do the Utes overcome another tragedy? How do they carry on with their season? Should they even carry on with their season?

Those are all questions Whittingham and his team have faced this past week.

Utah was on a bye following a 24-13 win over Washington State on Sept. 25, leaving the Utes, players and coaches alike, time to reflect and grieve without preparing for a game. The Utes also used the bye week to decide how they should proceed after Lowe’s death, with three-quarters of a football season still in front of it beginning Saturday night at USC (6 p.m., FOX).

A team meeting occurred on the morning of Sept. 26, not long after news of Lowe’s death and the subsequent homicide investigation became public. By the time the meeting began, Whittingham said, everyone knew Lowe had been shot and killed outside a Salt Lake City house party late Sunday.

Later that evening, Whittingham met with his leadership council, a group of 15 veteran players responsible for some level of decision-making, similar to a captaincy. Whittingham’s intention there was to gain some feedback from team leaders as far as how everyone would collectively move forward and to make sure coaches and players were on the same page.

At that point, no player had expressed a desire to not play at USC or beyond. With the leadership council having weighed in, a second full team meeting the following day offered the chance for more dialogue among players and coaches. To Whittingham, that second team meeting the day after Lowe’s death was the start of the healing process.

The Utes were prepared to collectively move forward.

“That’s exactly the sentiment the leadership council said, the best way to heal and the best way to get ourselves together is getting back to doing what they love and one of the main reasons they’re here,” Whittingham said. “Getting back to some sense of normalcy, but at the same time, you never put it out of your mind. It’s just a therapy, in and of itself, to get back on the field.”

The Utes attended a candlelight vigil for Lowe last week on campus and plan to honor him in other ways this season, including an effort to retire the No. 22 jersey both he and Jordan wore.

And they will honor him while playing out their season.

Utah starts looking ahead to USC

Getting back to some sense of normalcy, getting back to football-related matters comes at an interesting juncture of Utah’s schedule as it prepares for what is a critical divisional contest at the LA Coliseum.

Utah is 0-5 at the Coliseum as a member of the Pac-12 and 0-8 in total dating back to 1923, the year the Trojans moved into the iconic stadium.

The last time the Utes played a football game, it was a win against the Cougars, but that win did not come without issues.

Utah fumbled seven times, losing three of them. Three of those seven fumbles belong to third-year freshman running back Micah Bernard, who left the game early in the second half with an upper-body injury. Alongside Bernard, three safeties, Brandon McKinney, Vonte Davis and Cole Bishop, were all hurt. Whittingham did not provide a status update on any of them, but he did say that none of the injuries was season ending.

On Monday morning, Lowe was removed from Utah’s two-deep depth chart. One starting cornerback, Clark Phillips III, slides into Lowe’s spot as a backup nickel behind Malone Mataele, while true freshman Elisha Lloyd has been elevated to a backup cornerback spot behind Phillips III.

Utah’s secondary was already without All-Pac-12 sophomore cornerback JT Broughton, who was injured at San Diego State on Sept. 18. Faybian Marks slid into Brougthon’s starting spot opposite Phillips III.

Arizona State-Utah set for 8 p.m. kickoff, ESPN broadcast

The early and late-afternoon kickoffs that punctuated three of Utah’s first four games this season were nice while they lasted.

No. 22 Arizona State’s Oct. 16 visit to Rice-Eccles Stadium was announced Monday morning as an 8 p.m. kickoff. The game will air on ESPN.

The Utes have had three of their four games kick off at 5:30 p.m. or earlier, including the rare 12:30 p.m. start vs. Washington State. Saturday’s trip to Los Angeles is a 6 p.m. MDT kickoff.

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