Here’s what Utah football coach Kyle Whittingham says about the Utes’ biggest spring storylines

The Utes, winners of the Pac-12 for the first time in December, open spring practice on Tuesday

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham and Utah football players salute Aaron Lowe and Ty Jordan during a break in the action, between Utah Utes and Ohio State Buckeyes in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., on Saturday, Jan. 1, 2022.

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Three-and-a-half months removed from experiencing unprecedented success, the University of Utah football program is ramping things back up.

Winter conditioning came to a close late last week, with spring practice set to begin on Tuesday. Those 15 spring practices will culminate with the Red-White Game on April 23 at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

As the 2022 season draws closer, Kyle Whittingham’s program is back to business as usual.

“We have a good group coming back,” Whittingham told The Salt Lake Tribune during a recent phone interview. “We have a lot of good players returning. Now, we did lose a lot of good players as well. Some big shoes to fill, and we’ll have to have some guys step up, but that’s the nature of college football every year.”

Between guys returning, guys leaving, and who fills in some of those holes, there is no shortage of storylines at Utah ahead of spring ball.

QB2 is up in the air

There will be a quarterback competition during at least the spring. It has nothing to do with Cam Rising, but rather behind the All-Pac-12 fifth-year junior with Bryson Barnes and Ja’Quinden Jackson standing as the options to be the backup.

Late in the fourth quarter against Ohio State, Rising suffered an apparent head injury and was helped off the field. Second-year freshman walk-on Bryson Barnes entered the game in place of Rising — not highly touted Texas transfer Ja’Quinden Jackson.

Barnes performed beautifully, connecting with tight end Dalton Kincaid for a 15-yard touchdown pass to tie the game, which the Buckeyes ultimately won, 48-45. After the game, Whittingham confirmed that Barnes was QB2 for the game, while indicating that he was a little more ready to run the offense and make a throw when necessary compared with Jackson.

The mere fact that Barnes even took a snap in the Rose Bowl, let alone ahead of Jackson, the perceived QB2, brings into legitimate question what exactly is the plan for backing up Rising.

“It’s going to be a battle between Ja’Quinden and Bryson, who played so well in his opportunity in the Rose Bowl,” Whittingham said. “That will be a battle and we don’t have a pecking order right now. We’ll see how things shake out during spring and who rises to the top.

“Ja’Quinden has made great strides. He’s not there yet, but he’s come a long way, I’ll tell you that. He shows a lot of potential, and Bryson, he’s a grinder. He works, and works, and works. He’s made himself into a guy that is a legitimate Division I quarterback.”

True freshman Brandon Rose has enrolled early and is ready for spring ball, while highly touted four-star recruit Nate Johnson will finish his senior year at Clovis (Calif.) High School before joining the program this summer.

JT Broughton is good to go

An All-Pac-12 honorable mention selection in 2020, Broughton, a fourth-year sophomore cornerback, has full clearance for spring practice after being lost for the season on Sept. 11 at BYU.

Broughton’s status is a boon for Utah’s cornerbacks’ room, which was beset with injuries last season.

Aside from Broughton, Faybian Marks and Zemaiah Vaughn both suffered season-ending injuries. Vaughn was lost for the year during the Pac-12 championship game, which led Whittingham, defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley and cornerbacks coach Sharrieff Shah to look outside the position group for help ahead of the Rose Bowl, eventually tabbing running back Micah Bernard as the starter.

Per Whittingham, Bernard has returned to running back, as expected. Marks and Vaughn are not ready for spring practice, but the expectation is both will be ready for the start of fall camp on Aug. 5.

All of that said, Broughton enters spring as the projected starter at one cornerback spot opposite another All-Pac-12 commodity, third-year sophomore Clark Phillips III.

Offensive line musical chairs

Utah’s most-versatile offensive lineman, Nick Ford, is gone to the NFL draft, as is starting left tackle Bam Olaseni. So, now what?

Jaren Kump started the first four games last season, three of them at left tackle, before he was lost to injury. Whittingham believes they will have “limited access” to Kump this spring, but is optimistic he will be ready by August. The question then becomes, what do you do with Kump once he’s ready?

Whittingham was noncommittal there, instead offering an oldie but a goodie, that the best five players will be out there along the offensive line. Kump, when healthy, is objectively one of Whittingham’s five best.

Paul Maile, who is not quite 100 percent after a late-season injury, started three games at center in 2021 and will be a factor once ready. Sataoa Laumea, who started all 13 games at right guard last season, will take reps at center this spring, as will Kolinu’u Faaiu, who did not see action in 2021 as a true freshman.

“We’ve got four or five candidates to fill the center spot, and there really is no leader in the clubhouse right now,” Whittingham said. “We’ll have a chance to take a look at several guys this spring and start to sort them out.”

Replacing Devin Lloyd and Nephi Sewell

In fairness, you don’t simply replace those guys given their resumes. But well-documented talent, albeit unproven talent, is present. What happens at linebacker is a huge storyline leading up to the Sept. 3 opener at the University of Florida.

Among the options, Lander Barton is the highest-rated recruit for Utah in this cycle.

“It depends on how fast he develops, but you’re talking about a kid with all the tools,” Whittingham said. “He’s 6-foot-4-plus, just shy of 230 pounds, runs exceptionally well, is athletic, agile. He’s everything you look for. It’s a matter of how quickly you can pick up the scheme and speed of the college game.”

Karene Reid played in 10 games last season, including six starts at rover. He has some experience, as does Florida transfer Mohamoud Diabate, but other than those two, there is very little. Aside from Barton, Whittingham referenced true freshmen Justin Medlock and Carson Tabaracci as potential options.

“We think we have a chance to develop that room into a pretty good position group for us,” Whittingham said. “We’re just getting started, though. It’s a lot of guys with very little experience, but that’s what spring ball is for.”

Barton, Medlock, and Tabaracci are all early enrollees.

Throwing cold water on a CFP run

As way-too-early top 25 polls trickle out, some with a single-digit ranking attached to Utah, much has been made of the potential for a run at the College Football Playoff.

Such a run would require a bevy of things to go right — things that are both in and out of Utah’s control. For starters, the Utes would need to win the Pac-12, let alone beat Florida in a game where Whittingham would still be breaking in new pieces, or at least new roles.

Leave it to Whittingham to be rational about a big-picture topic that has engulfed much of the fan base since the Rose Bowl.

“First of all, you can’t get ahead of yourself,” Whittingham said. “In order for any of that stuff to happen, you have to win the Pac-12, and that’s our primary objective, the goal of this program every year is to win the Pac-12.

“We just don’t want to get ahead of ourselves. We had seven or eight guys declare for the draft, underclassmen that we have to replace. We didn’t lose quantity, but we lost some real quality this past year. That, to me, is the biggest key, if guys can step up and fill those roles.”