The University of Utah football program conducted an intrasquad scrimmage Saturday as part of the spring period of the 2022 football season. With quarterback Cam Rising leading the way, the reigning Pac-12 champs showed plenty of offensive firepower at Rice-Eccles Stadium. But there are still some questions for the Utes to try to answer in the final week of spring camp.
Here are five observations from the scrimmage.
Tempo, tempo, tempo
It was clear from the beginning of Saturday’s scrimmage that tempo was the emphasis, from top to bottom.
Offensively, the first few sessions featured a lot of NASCAR tempo, known more colloquially as no-huddle. In years past, head coach Kyle Whittingham has been adamant about keeping the number of total plays in a game at 65-70 as a way of protecting his defense. But given the level of talent returning and the experience that Cam Rising brings at the quarterback position, it makes sense that Utah would want to bring the tempo up and push players to be better and faster at assignments during spring as a way of development.
Utah returns a bevy of playmakers on offense, and the ability to jump out to early leads and play from ahead was a major advantage for last year’s team — and it should continue to be as long as Rising is the quarterback.
An uptempo scrimmage also benefits a young defense that is still trying to develop and will undoubtedly face similarly-paced offenses.
For a program that has consistently relied on defense as a foundation, going no-huddle does seem like an intriguing departure from normal team philosophy. But with a difficult schedule and an opening date on the road at Florida, the extra advantage is football common sense.
Offense wins the day
Rising was surgical in his time at quarterback Saturday, and the rest of the first team continued to follow the lead that he set when he replaced Charlie Brewer under center last year. The Utes offense moved the ball down the field efficiently and at times downright savagely against a mixture of players from the first- and second-string defense.
Rising ran the offense with the kind of command you would expect from a player entering his fourth season in the program. His timing and rhythm with Devaughn Vele was nearly unstoppable. (Spoiler alert, we’ll talk more about later and likely throughout the fall.)
It wasn’t just Rising that seemed able to run the offense in his sleep though, as Utah’s offensive line consistently provided him with a clean pocket to operate out of and opened multiple, massive holes for the bevy of running backs in Utah’s backfield.
If one thing can be drawn from the spring session, and realistically not too much can as it is still an intrasquad scrimmage, it is that Utah has built a versatile offensive scheme and has the roster to match it at nearly every position.
Rising protects the ball well, probably the primary reason that Whittingham says he would trust Rising with his life, and he looked particularly adept today at his decision-making and reading the defense and recognition of what to do. A healthy Rising clearly gives this team an edge at the position that the program hasn’t seen since ... Alex Smith? Hard to say, but if today was any indication, the offense should shine again this fall.
The emergence of Devaughn Vele
The former walk-on from Rancho Bernardo High School in San Diego was dynamic over the course of the scrimmage, and his connection with Rising was clear throughout.
Vele is a smooth, fluid athlete who has all the tools physically that a go-to receiver should have, and his 6-foot-5 frame and ability to elevate above defenders and accelerate past them once he comes down makes him the most likely candidate that Utah has had to gain 1,000 yards receiving since Dres Anderson did it back in 2013.
Vele’s emergence as a threat in a variety of routes is badly needed at the wide receiver position, where Brant Kuithe has been working instead of tight end to try and give the position more options and experience. Makai Cope and Money Parks have shown flashes, and Solomon Enis is as reliable a possession receiver as you can find, but Vele will have to continue to establish himself as a threat both to take pressure off the seemingly hundreds of tight ends, and to replace the production of the departed Britain Covey.
It wasn’t a great day for the defense overall, as the offense had its way for most of the scrimmage — but it wasn’t without some standout plays and players.
A beefed-up Aliki Vimahi showed that he still has the athleticism that helped him see the field early on as a freshman as he intercepted a pass near the line of scrimmage, and RJ Hubert and Sione Vaki both made strong plays from the safety position, where Utah will need to find replacements for Vonte Davis and Brandon McKinnie.
With one more week to go before the spring game, you would expect Whittingham to be giving the bulk of the reps to young players like Lander Barton, Vaki, and others behind the stalwarts like Van Fillinger, Clark Phillips, and Karene Reid — because while there is depth on the roster, the defense is still lacking experience.
The fact that Barton has been taking reps with the first team essentially since the beginning of camp speaks to the fact that there’s a ton of talent in the most recent recruiting class, but also that the defense is still extremely young.
The battle for QB2
It has been extremely rare that Utah hasn’t had a competition for QB1, and for Utah fans the return of Rising means that won’t be an issue going into the fall, but the spot behind Rising is definitely wide open still.
Though not for a lack of players stepping up.
Bryson Barnes, who may end up as a folk legend on par with Brett Ratliff for his performance in the Rose Bowl, continued to show the reasons why Andy Ludwig trusted him as the backup. He’s not an explosive athlete, but he’s reliable as a runner, tough as nails, and makes good decisions for the most part. Barnes will never have the arm strength or athleticism that his counterpart at the position, Ja’Quinden Jackson, does but he’s polished and smart and handles adversity with the calm that you would expect from a former pig farmer whose first Name, Image and Likeness deal was for bacon.
Jackson is a tremendous athlete, and you can see the potential he has as a dual-threat every time he runs or throws the ball down the field. Where he lacked the polish and touch that is required from the position last fall, he seems to have found it, along with a much better understanding of the scheme. When the entirety of your season hinges on the backup quarterback always being one play away, having the luxury of two capable replacements is a good thing.
But where the portal giveth in the sense that both Rising and Jackson arrived via transfer, it could also taketh away if both players continue to be neck and neck and one decides they prefer playing time over clipboards. The cupboard is by no means bare as freshman Brandon Rose flashed potential and four-star Nate Johnson will be arriving in the fall, but for once Utah has options at quarterback, and those options will continue to compete through the fall.