Utah football finishes spring camp by rising to a new era

Kyle Whittingham has built the Utes’ foundation on defense and special teams. After this spring, however, there’s no doubt that the keys belong to a quarterback now.

(Utah Athletics) Utes quarterback Cam Rising, middle, has been the clear cut leader at Utah's spring practices. How far the Utes go in 2022 will rest on the quarterback's shoulders.

The entrance music was apt.

As the quarterback jogged onto the field, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising” blared over the speakers — a nod to both the player’s name and the trouble he was about to bring to the opposing defense.

There are plenty of questions for Kyle Whittingham to answer coming off his most successful, triumphant, and also tragedy filled season as head coach. But as Utah wraps up the spring camp this week, one thing has become clear: The Utes are Cameron Rising’s team now.

At another school, on another team, this might not be of note. But at Utah, a program rooted in defense and special teams, it is a bizarre turn of events to have this most recent edition, perhaps the most expectation-heavy in school history, be led by a quarterback. Then again, things have never been more different in the world of college football and it stands to reason Utah football would follow suit.

How far can Cam Rising take the Utes?

When asked for his thoughts about one of his team’s spring scrimmages, Whittingham used the word “outstanding” to describe the play of the team in an atmosphere where Rising and wide receiver Devaughn Vele seemingly found and exploited every seam in Utah’s defense. Whittingham struggled to hide his excitement while talking about the emerging connection between the quarterback and receiver.

The excitement surrounding Rising seemed to hit a fever pitch last season. After taking over following the departure of Charlie Brewer, Rising’s leadership was immediately noticeable. He connected within the team and with its fanbase.

But what Rising has done this spring is fill in the gaps.

He’s lighting fast in his progressions, to the point that the offense feels comfortable running at a variety of speeds — more like a Formula One race than NASCAR. Rising navigates the field with the precision of a Lewis Hamilton or Max Verstappen (depending on your fandom), and his confidence in the system and where to go with the ball has seeped into more than just the offense.

Whereas last season Utah’s defense had a generational talent in Devin Lloyd to counterbalance things, Rising has, well, risen to the challenge set by his teammate and will look to improve not only his own stock, but also the results from the previous season. He’ll need to stay healthy, and he still has work to do on deep throws and will need to continue the day-to-day focus he’s been known for, but for the first time in a very long while Utah football is a team led first and foremost by the quarterback.

Now it’s up to Rising how far the Utes can go.

What weapons does Rising have at his disposal?

(Utah Athletics) Utes offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig watches wide receiver Makai Cope haul in a pass during spring practice on March 22, 2022.

The offensive side of the football returned a cadre of talent at tight end — and the position that looks to be one of the best in the country. The emergence of Vele helps a wide receiver room that has continued to improve since the arrival of wide receivers coach Chad Bumphis, and while there may be an additional receiver or two added to the group via the transfer portal, there are reasons to feel confident in the position as a whole. Add to that the return of running back Tavion Thomas and several starters on the offensive line — more specifically Braeden Daniels moving from the right to left side tackle — and it would seem Utah has what it needs on offense to be competent.

The intrigue and X-factor could come from some newcomers, specifically heralded recruit Jaylon Glover. Glover has been on the tip of every coach’s tongue in post-practice comments, and 5-foot-7, 211-pound running back from Lake Gibson in Florida brings a resume that seems eerily comparable to previous stars Zack Moss and Ty Jordan.

At receiver, Makai Cope and Money Parks have recently joined Vele in receiving praise from Whittingham. That’s important because, while Britain Covey wasn’t setting records with his production last season, he impacted the team with his big-play potential and knack for jump-starting the offense when they needed it the most.

Utah will need a mixture of the aforementioned wideouts to step forward in those moments if they are going to repeat the success of last season’s Pac-12 Championship team.

How will Utah replace Devin Lloyd?

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) University of Utah’s Devin Lloyd who ranks amongst the Nation’s top linebackers attends Utah Pro Day at the Spence Eccles Field House on Thursday, March 24, 2022.

Utah’s Pac-12 Championship hopes, a trip to a second Rose Bowl or even a playoff berth, can’t sit squarely on the shoulders of the offense.

Defense wins championships, right?

Here’s where the Utes have more questions to answer, starting with life without linebacker Devin Lloyd. Replacing him is impossible; there simply aren’t generational players just waiting in the wings at any program, let alone Utah.

And it isn’t just Lloyd who has left a hole in Utah’s defense. Almost 40% of Utah’s tackles last season came from a quartet of Devin Lloyd, Nephi Sewell, Brandon McKinnie and Vonte Davis, all of whom have departed the program.

For more perspective, 46 players are listed as having registered at least one tackle last season, and the four listed above accounted for almost half of that. To say Utah is replacing a lot isn’t burying the lead necessarily, but it will be how Utah replaces the tackles and 17.5 sacks combined from Lloyd and Mika Tafua that matters.

The good news? The next three names on the list are Clark Phillips III, Cole Bishop and Karene Reid, all of whom return with a resume that Utah fans can actually envision from watching them perform last season and the coaching staff has spared little in praising their development.

Add to it that Van Fillinger and Junior Tafuna bring 10 sacks between them in their first full season and there’s indication that the cupboard isn’t bare when it comes to talent.

Still, Utah was reliant, both in terms of impact and scheme, on Lloyd and Sewell and the arrival of new defensive tackles coach Luther Elliss has initiated a change in philosophy up front. Last year was about letting Lloyd and Sewell flow to make tackles. As the talent and depth on the interior become the strength of this year’s defense, that will lead to Utah asking more of its front line in making tackles and getting pressure rather than simply occupying blockers.

It isn’t a drastic departure: Utah has relied on the defensive line to wreak havoc on offenses before, and a potential starting unit of Fillinger, Tafuna, Vimahi and Miki Suguturaga (who multiple coaches have singled out in addition to Jonah Elliss as the potential starter opposite Fillinger) has plenty of potential.

Utah has talent behind the front four; Phillips is already drawing eyes from NFL scouts and Bishop isn’t far behind, despite only being a sophomore.

But the heart of the defense will beat in rhythm to the production of the men in the trenches, which is a fitting return to the roots that some might argue Elliss started years ago.

Can Utah address its special teams troubles?

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah wide receiver Britain Covey (18) returns an Oregon punt for a Ute touchdown as time runs out in the first half, in PAC-12 action between the Utah Utes and the Oregon Ducks. At Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City, on Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021.

When Utah started in the Pac-12, one of the few areas the team was able to win battles, week in and week out, was on special teams, an often overlooked area for coaches and players during their preparation each week.

Whittingham’s approach to special teams created unlikely heroes out of punters and kickers like Tom Hackett, Andy Phillips, Mitch Wishnowsky and Matt Gay.

As unusual as it is to see punters and kickers as fan favorites, it allowed Utah to compete long enough for the talent around them to catch up. Now, as other areas have improved, special teams seem to have taken a back seat.

Covey was the clear bright spot across the unit with his highlight-reel punt and kick returns, and there simply isn’t a Covey replacement on the roster either in terms of athleticism or overall impact.

Covey’s replacement remains unsettled: Vele seems the most likely candidate and Whittingham has mentioned others including former Bingham High star Braedon Wissler. But expecting them to step into the role Covey magnified seems like a bad idea.

More concerning were Utah’s struggles to punt the ball away safely, and the miscues arguably cost them a game on the road against Oregon State. Utah may be good enough to overcome mistakes if they appear again this season, however, and with both Michael Williams and Cameron Peasley returning at punter there is reason to expect improvement.

It could simply be that Utah has to be just “good enough” on special teams. While that may be an adjustment for fans, good enough might have put Utah into the College Football Playoff conversation had they won at Oregon State.

So … can the Utes repeat at Pac-12 champs?

(Chase Stevens | AP) Utah offensive lineman Bamidele Olaseni lies in confetti on the field after Utah defeated Oregon 38-10 to win the Pac-12 Conference championship game in Las Vegas.

Whittingham’s team faces another challenge for the first time in his career: the task of repeating as Pac-12 champion.

Last season was one for the ages, a team bonding together following the truly tragic loss of teammates Ty Jordan and Aaron Lowe to earn a trip to the Rose Bowl — an ending that fell just short of storybook as Ohio State beat the Utes on a field goal to end the final drive of the game.

Utah has been a program reliant on culture to get them through the worst of times.

That culture has never faced such a complex challenge on the field until now. With success comes attention, expectations, the natural human reaction to relax and become complacent. It becomes easy to be distracted.

For a program that has been built on and rooted in what Whittingham likes to refer to as “The Process” for so long, it seems fitting that Utah’s success will hinge primarily on its ability to stay disciplined to the very tenet and foundation that Whittingham has preached for the entirety of his career.

The more things change, the more they stay the same, right?

And for Utah fans hoping to visit Pasadena again in January, that might be just the mantra they need as we head into the 2022 season.

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