It was business as usual as Utah football closed out the spring period with the annual Red and White game at Rice-Eccles on Saturday — and for the fans who braved the multiple stages of weather that only spring in Utah can provide in one day, it was clear that business is good.
Here are a few takeaways from the action on Saturday:
Utah’s offense hummed — even without Cam Rising
Starting quarterback Cam Rising exited the scrimmage after just one series, but oh what a series it was. Rising was 4-of-6 for 60 yards and a touchdown in his one series. He distributed the ball to multiple receivers, including a long pass down the sideline to Devaughn Vele for 21 yards on the very first play, and a highlight reel-worthy one-handed catch to the emerging Makai Cope two plays later.
“He was very smooth out there,” head coach Kyle Whittingham said of his starting QB. “He was sharp. You saw Devaughn Vele catch a few balls from him, and they have started developing a good chemistry together. We had a few receivers who didn’t play today, and we have a few coming in this summer that we will add to the receiver group.
“What Cam did was what we had hoped and expected. He came in and engineered a touchdown drive and made it look easy, and that was his day’s work.”
But as Rising gave way to backups Bryson Barnes and Ja’Quinden Jackson, the offensive sparks continued with both quarterbacks throwing for two touchdowns and Barnes having a 55-yard rushing TD wiped off the board due to a bizarrely called taunting penalty.
It was hard to deny that Utah looked explosive offensively for both teams.
Freshman running back Jaylon Glover continued his impressive spring with five carries for 36 yards total (an eye-catching 7.2 yards per carry average), and Money Parks led the way for the receivers with four catches for 43 yards, finding the end zone twice.
Between the two teams, 19 players caught passes on offense and the White team averaged 6.4 yards per play and 9.0 per passing attempt which if maintained throughout the entirety of a season, would likely yield Utah a top-20 offense nationally.
While it can be difficult to draw actual conclusions from a split-squad scrimmage, the eye test was more than enough to confirm that Utah enters the fall with actual depth on offense beyond just the roster.
Kyle Whittingham still living the dream
The longer locks of hair are peeking out from under his cap again and it was clear from his demeanor as he spoke with media after the game that Whittingham was happy with more than the sandwich he had just eaten as he sat down at the podium.
For a man who is so notoriously calculated, Whittingham was positive and honest with his comments.
“We had an excellent spring, and we were able to stay healthy. We had a lot of guys making plays today, which was great to see,” he said.
That doesn’t sound overwhelming when read aloud in print, but it was the smile on his face and the tone of his voice that drove home the point that after such a roller coaster ride in 2021, the head ball coach at the University of Utah is still living the dream he started 18 years ago.
At times you could see the new attitude reflected in the team on the field as the defensive line created new celebrations on the field and along the sideline spontaneously, and some of the loudest moments from the players came at the end of the game cheering on those who rarely see the field at the bottom of the depth chart.
It has been a consistent aspect throughout the spring, something stats and general football sense can’t really quantify. But as safety Cole Bishop, Glover, Rising and freshman linebacker Lander Barton joked with one another behind the podium after the game, it was hard to deny that camaraderie shines through with such a diverse group of players and positions.
That they have opened up practice and themselves in front of the prying eyes of the media seems to point towards the confidence this team has in their upcoming mission.
But there is a lot of hard work ahead.
Whittingham mentioned the upcoming season-opener against Florida twice Saturday, using the trip to the Swamp as an example that there are “no easy games”.
Freshening the playbook
For a team that won the Pac-12 predominantly with downhill runs and play action passing to the tight ends, Utah seemed to open the playbook Saturday. A variety of quarterback runs for Barnes and Jackson were on display and Barnes led all rushers with 47 yards for the game.
It’s hard to see Utah running the ball with Rising 10 times a game like they did with Barnes, but where the threat of the QB running in-game seemed to be more present than the action in years past, Utah showed a few plays using Barnes and Jackson in the ever-popular run-pass option, or RPO, something that hasn’t been a staple traditionally under offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig.
But if we can infer anything from this spring session, it is that Utah is approaching the season with a fresh perspective offensively in how they use the talent on the roster. Will that lead to more uptempo play and variety in the run game in the fall? Hard to say, but if Ludwig was willing to show it off in the spring, there is likely a reason.
A youth movement on defense
Between all the discussion about the offense this spring and linebacker Devin Lloyd having left the program as one of the all-time greats, there are plenty of questions surrounding the defense.
Barton continued to play well, showing his athleticism as he locked up a wide receiver for minimal gain and then deflected a pass the very next play while covering a running back, something that can be difficult for a four-year starter at linebacker let alone a freshman.
In the backfield, Kenzel Lawler stood out with a few breakups and the lone interception of the day and Caine Savage also had a few nice pass breakups, indications that both the young defensive backs have made progress since last season when Micah Bernard had to step in at the position due to injuries.
Whittingham noted that everyone should be available once the team starts summer conditioning, including Fabian Marks who did not see any action this spring, along with highly-touted Florida transfer Mohamoud Diabate.
While that bodes well for the defense in terms of availability, there is still a looming question of how the group will fare with so little experience.
Early enrolee Carson Tabaracci led the red team in tackles on Saturday, which is noteworthy because he could still be getting ready for his high school prom after the game. Meanwhile, Bishop led the white team with seven tackles on the day. Bishop is still just a sophomore, one who truly didn’t come on until the end of the season (though it was hard to dispute his impact when he did burst onto the scene) and he pointed out in his comments afterward that while his side was “playing well, making tackles; we just need to make sure we cut down on the mistakes.”
Utah has the luxury of Rising to give the defense some leeway, but as we saw toward the end of the season last year, Utah is at its best when the defense can get a stop and the offense can control the ball at the end.
Whittingham is underrated when it comes to managing games with a lead, and the margin for mistakes from a youthful defense will only get narrower if they don’t come out of Florida with a victory, but it is hard to imagine that a defense that finished the year as the best in the Pac-12 with so many injuries and young players won’t figure things out again.