Utah Utes mailbag: The biggest questions from Utah football’s spring camp

Plus: Donuts, spring practice questions/answers, leveraging the transfer portal, and more

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah fans cheer for the Utes, in football action between Utah Utes and Ohio State Buckeyes in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, on Saturday, January 1, 2022.

The NCAA Tournament is over, college basketball season has arrived at its “offseason,” and the transfer portal is churning around the country. We’re going to start this Utah Utes mailbag right there.

Do you have a question for Utes beat reporter Josh Newman? Send it to him via a tweet, direct message him on Twitter, email him at jnewman@sltrib.com, or leave it in the comments section at the end of this article and he will answer them in his weekly mailbag.

Q: “You said that getting a scorer would be a top priority for Utah (I agree). Do you think that a player like Gabe Madsen could develop into that player or do they need to get a transfer that scored a lot at a lower division and hope that it translates?” - @Zach_Han7

A: Let’s start by rewinding.

On April 11, 2021, about two weeks after Craig Smith got the Utah job, he got a commitment from UNLV transfer David Jenkins Jr.

Jenkins Jr. scored a ton across three seasons at South Dakota State and UNLV. When he’s hot, he can really get it going. Jenkins Jr. was cast as a potential No. 1 scoring option for a Utes team that didn’t project to score into the 70s and 80s.

I could probably do a dissertation on this, but Jenkins Jr. did not work out in that role. He started off well, but minutes waned. He was a DNP-CD more than once, and he hit the transfer portal again once Utah’s 11-20 season came to a close.

Striking gold in the portal is not easy, and it becomes harder when you’re trying to move a guy up a level to the Power Six. Does it happen successfully? Absolutely, but there are more cases of it not working out as intended, as was the case with Jenkins Jr.

Can Madsen develop into that guy? It can’t be ruled out. He has in-the-gym range, and if he can put on some muscle and diversify his game on offense, he’s going to be a load to deal with as his career progresses.

Full disclosure: I’m not convinced the player you’re asking about is on the current roster, and that includes Mike Saunders Jr. and Wilguens Exacte Jr., sight unseen. Diving back into the portal and trying to figure it out still feels like the best course of action if you’re Smith, but the issue there is, well, everyone is looking for not only scoring, but experienced scoring out of the portal, not just Utah.

As a reminder, Utah has three open scholarships at the moment for 2022-23.

Q: “Part way through spring practice, biggest questions being answered and biggest questions remaining?” - @rkdavidson13

A: Among the biggest questions for Utah spring practice, we have Ja’Quinden Jackson vs. Bryson Barnes for QB2, replacing Devin Lloyd and Nephi Sewell at linebacker and replacing Nick Ford and Bam Olaseni along the offensive line.

None of those questions are answered yet. Kyle Whittingham has not come out and said who is leading between Jackson and Barnes, but I have taken some post-practice comments as an indication that Jackson is in position to grab that spot. That said, I expect that situation to, at least publicly, drag into August.

Springtime is when you figure out two-deep and depth matters. There is plenty of time to sort out LB and OL, and frankly, nobody seems particularly worried about it. There are options and depth at both positions.

I think the one question that I had that has been answered is that JT Broughton is healthy and projects to start at cornerback opposite Clark Phillips III. Another question on that topic is what does the depth at CB ultimately look like.

One new question that has emerged that we did not have when spring practice began is safety. It’s Cole Bishop at one spot, and while Whittingham has been pretty effusive in regards to R.J. Hubert’s play after a season-ending injury, two-time FCS All-American Clayton Isbell is on his way this summer from the transfer portal.

Q: “How aggressive do you anticipate the Utes will be in leveraging the transfer portal in the lead up to next season (honestly could be for football or basketball)?” - @josh_lybbert

A: Let’s focus on football for the purposes of this exercise.

Whittingham has been unafraid to hit the portal for positions of need, most notably at quarterback, where he has pulled out Cam Rising (Texas), Jake Bentley (South Carolina), and Charlie Brewer (Baylor). Two of those three did not pan out, but that is beside the point. If Whittingham believes Utah is light at a position, he will go for it in the portal.

Whittingham fielded a question on Tuesday about roster management in this day and age of the extra year of eligibility due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“You don’t have as many scholarships to give because of the backlog it created when they decided to not have that year (2020) count as a year of eligibility, which was the right decision to make,” Whittingham said. “You have to be real judicious on who you give your scholarships, who you commit to and I’m sure we’ll have some transfer portal guys after spring.

“Right now, we have to see how things shake out. I can’t give you a great idea of what’s going to happen, but we have to have some space open up for fall.”

I think the latter portion of his answer gives a good view of where his mind is as far as the portal. How well Utah can leverage the portal is going to depend on who leaves after spring practice. Personally, I was surprised that more guys did not hit the portal after the Rose Bowl, especially on defense, but it makes sense for players to go through spring ball to get a better idea of their standing before making a decision.

Q: “If you had the opportunity to start a business with Tony Soprano, Walter White, the Byrdes (Ozark), the Roys (Succession), or Bobby Axelrod (Billions), who would you choose?” - @benwilkinson

A: I have never seen Succession or Billions, so the Roys and Bobby Axelrod are removed from consideration.

You don’t get into business with Tony Soprano, and you definitely don’t become indebted to him. We saw how well that worked out for Davey Scatino and Ramsey Sports and Outdoors, right? This is an automatic no, not much thought involved.

If Walter White hadn’t broken bad, and was just, say, a super-intelligent guy with an idea, sure, maybe, but he made some really iffy choices down the stretch. Can’t trust a guy like that, not always thinking straight, taking too many risks, runs with a questionable crowd. I don’t like it.

Marty Byrde didn’t exactly make good choices either, but he and Wendy have certainly maneuvered their way around a great number of issues which is a checkmark for them. They should legitimately be dead, I don’t know, a dozen times by now over the lifespan of that show. Marty and Wendy are levelheaded, intelligent and clearly very good in a crisis.

The cartel thing is a bad look. I’ll get into business with the Byrdes on the straight and narrow, though.

Q: “Any updates to Utah’s woeful punting game? What about an elite returner to replace Covey?” - @801Utes

A: Utah’s punting situation was a gong show last fall. Without looking it up, three blocked punts that I can remember between Cameron Peasley and Michael Williams, plus a fourth that was waived off at Oregon State due to a penalty.

At the time, Whittingham blamed a lot of those woes on blocking, noting on a number of occasions that the get-off times on some of those punts were good. No matter, because it wasn’t good enough and it needs to get better.

Peasley and Williams are the two punters currently on the roster, with Whittingham saying Tuesday that it’s an open competition he would like to get through this spring. Short of that, just like LB, OL and other question marks, there is plenty of time to figure out the punting.

Williams had the better average last season, but on 19 fewer attempts. Peasley is considered to have the bigger leg, while Williams is considered something of a directional punter.

Rising quick-kicked three punts inside the 20-yard line last season, and is a legitimate option. No, the All-Pac-12 quarterback is not going to be the full-time punter, but it’s good to know he’s there in a pinch.

Q: “Let’s talk about the other, other, round dough: Donuts. It’s a Friday morning, the coffee pot is empty, where are you going to get that necessary fried dough fix and jump start the weekend into hyper gear?” - @Tim_Populi

A: You know what bugs me? Why do we have to pigeonhole everyone as “bagel people” or “donut people”? I like bagels, I like donuts. Why do we have to label everyone? Can I live a little bit?

Am I eligible to list the best donuts in Salt Lake City if I’ve never been to Duck Donuts? Anyway, the best I’ve had are at Fresh Donuts & Deli on State Street. Raspberry jelly, maybe a little maple bar action. Delightful. Banbury Cross also gets a nod. That place is solid, but it’s more a matter of convenience than anything else. My dog once stole a Banbury Cross jelly donut off the counter that I was saving for later that day. I’m still not over that.

Full disclosure: I’m a “bagel guy.”

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