The Utah Utes have College Football Playoff aspirations. First they must answer some questions in fall camp

Utes open Sept. 3 at the University of Florida

(Damian Dovarganes | AP) Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham speaks during Pac-12 Conference men's NCAA college football media day Friday, July 29, 2022, in Los Angeles.

When the University of Utah opens fall camp this week, things are going to feel a little bit different.

The Utes, reigning Pac-12 champions and likely to begin the season as the conference’s highest-ranked team, are not beginning this season under the radar as is often the case. Instead, they are now the hunted, with 17 starters returning and preseason potential to reach the College Football Playoff.

The opener — Sept. 3 at the University of Florida in Gainesville — will be a tone setter for how this Utah season may play out.

“It’s had our players’ attention since January,” 18th-year Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham told The Salt Lake Tribune during Pac-12 media day in Los Angeles. “They’re smart, they understand we have to hit the ground running. We have to be lights out from the get-go. The Swamp is a tough place to play. It’s going to be hot, it’s going to be humid, SEC Country, SEC athletes. We know the challenge ahead of us, we just have to prepare the right way.”

That preparation will include answering a few key questions over the next month.

How to replace Devin Lloyd and Nephi Sewell?

Lloyd is the most-prolific defensive player in the history of a program that has churned out some great ones. Sewell was entrenched at one linebacker spot for the last two seasons.

So, now what? Linebacker might be the most-talented position within Utah’s defense, but the options are mostly green given how much Lloyd and Sewell played last season.

Whittingham told The Tribune that Florida transfer Mohamoud Diabate is fully cleared after missing all of spring practice with a shoulder issue. While most of the options in the room are inexperienced, Diabate is not, having played 37 games with 17 starts for the Gators from 2019-21.

Assuming Diabate grabs one linebacker spot, sophomore Karene Reid is a veteran option for the other. Meanwhile, Whittingham has continually pumped up true freshmen Lander Barton and Justin Medlock, both of whom enrolled early and went through spring practice.

Whittingham has been especially high on Barton, a former Brighton High School standout and the highest-rated recruit in Utah’s 2022 cycle.

Brant Kuithe is a tight end, right?

Kuithe is listed as a tight end, and has been an All-Pac-12 selection at the position three times — most recently in 2021 before opting to return this fall as a senior.

That said, anyone watching Kuithe the last few years knows that pigeonholing him as a tight end isn’t really fair given his versatility, a notion Whittingham is on board with.

“He’s a hybrid, he’ll be all over the place,” Whittingham said. “To say he is strictly a tight end is a false statement. He’s going to be in a lot of different situations, a lot of different locations for us.”

Kuithe is coming off 50 catches for 611 yards and six touchdowns, not all of it coming at tight end. He can line up out of the slot, he can catch the ball out of the backfield. More than a couple of times, Utah went to Kuithe on a jet sweep.

Kuithe is the most dangerous, most versatile weapon Cam Rising has at his disposal this season.

Ja’Quinden Jackson or Bryson Barnes?

Whittingham indicated multiple times during the spring that he expected the battle to be Rising’s backup to drag into fall camp.

He confirmed as much to The Tribune on Friday, but with one key factor in play.

“It’s ongoing, but we have to solidify it very quickly in fall camp,” Whittingham said. “We have to identify who we’ll sink the reps into, because there’s only so many reps to go around for the No. 2 guy. We have to know who that is as soon as we can.

“Ideally, we have that settled after the first scrimmage.”

Jackson and Barnes have two career pass attempts between them, both belonging to Barnes in the fourth quarter of the Rose Bowl in relief of Rising, who suffered a concussion. Jackson is considered the superior athlete between, but he has not thrown a meaningful pass in a game since Dec. 14, 2019, a Texas Class 6A-I state semifinal when he was a senior at Duncanville High School.

What’s the situation at wide receiver?

Utah needs more production from its wide receivers, and the numbers, or lack thereof, back that up.

Devaughn Vele (23-389-1) and Solomon Enis (22-248-1) were productive last season, but beyond those two there are question marks. Although, one might argue that Vele and Enis are also question marks.

Vele is going to be asked to play a much larger role than he has in the past. The assumption seems to be that Vele is up to task, which he very well might be. But how does anyone know if he can handle that workload since he’s never been asked to do it?

Vele and Enis are heading for the deep end immediately at Florida as one of them is going to draw Gators star sophomore cornerback Jason Marshall Jr., a former five-star recruit and projected NFL draft pick as early as 2024, UF’s other projected starting cornerback is third-year sophomore Avery Helm, who played in 11 games last season with nine starts.

How Enis opens this season is an underrated storyline. A 44-game veteran dating back to his arrival in 2018, expectations have followed Enis thanks to his size, speed, and pedigree. He is the son of former Penn State All-American running back Curtis Enis.

If Enis can take a step forward, if he can become a big, downfield target for Rising, Utah’s already-potent offense becomes much more so.

“He just needs to continue to be productive,” Whittingham said. “Solomon, in my opinion, where he can really make some headway is yards after the catch. He’s great at running routes, catching the football, great hands, but if he can do a little bit more after the catch, that’s what can take his game to the next level.”

Money Parks, Makai Cope, and Jaylen Dixon are veterans in the mix,

Can they really compete for a CFP spot?

We’ve been talking about this Florida opener for months and how it could be a precursor to a run to the College Football Playoff. Let’s talk some more about that before camp starts.

Utah’s program is at the point where the annual expectation should be winning the Pac-12 and going to the Rose Bowl. It won’t happen every year, but the Utes should be right there competing for it on an annual basis.

In some years, maybe the Utes have enough where talking about the CFP is legitimately warranted. The 2019 team got to the doorstep, then got smashed by Oregon in the Pac-12 championship game before winding up in the Alamo Bowl.

On paper, the 2022 team has enough that talking about this isn’t crazy — but to keep talking about it, the Utes have to get out of Gainesville with a win.

A season-opening win, and everything remains on the table. Everything. An unbeaten regular season, a CFP spot, everything. Utah, which is likely to start the season ranked in the top 10-15, can get to a CFP with a loss to the Gators, but the window closes significantly in that case.

The margin for error is already slim even with a UF win. A 1-loss Pac-12 team is going to have a lot of trouble breaking through. No 2-loss team from any conference has ever broken through.

Kuithe said during Rose Bowl week he believes Utah can get to a CFP. We’re about to find out.

“Absolutely, it’s a very confident group,” Whittingham said when asked if he believed this Utah team can get to the CFP. “As long as you back that confidence up with a strong work ethic, which they have proven to have over the last seven months.”

Quick hits

• Faybian Marks and Zemaiah Vaughn were both lost late last season due to injury, which led to Micah Bernard starting at cornerback in the Rose Bowl. They will both be full participants when camp opens Wednesday.

• The expectation is Braeden Daniels, an All-Pac-12 second-team selection in 2021 after starting 11 games at right tackle, kicks all the way over and gets the nod at left tackle. That’s one key offensive line question out of the way. The next one? Center, which could go to Paul Maile.

• The well-documented special teams’ troubles last season means at least one thing. Incoming punter Jack Bouwmeester will be under a bit of a microscope.

• Pencil in Gabe Reid for the second defensive end spot opposite Van Fillinger, but Jonah Elliss and Miki Suguturaga will have a say. There is good depth at that position up to at least No. 4.

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