5 takeaways from Utah football’s latest spring scrimmage

From the backup quarterbacks to the secondary, the Utes need to develop depth as they hope to compete for a third straight Pac-12 championship.

(Utah Athletics) Running back Jaylon Glover works out during a spring football practice at the University of Utah.

It was a heavy work day as the University of Utah football program opened its doors to allow the media to view the last full scrimmage before the “22 Forever” Spring Game on April 22.

Here are five observations from the action over the weekend.

Battle For QB2

For a team coming off back-to-back championship seasons, a quarterback battle would be headline news.

While the likely return of Cam Rising looms over the current tussle for backup quarterback, when the man they call Bad Moon might rise over Rice-Eccles turf isn’t guaranteed considering the nature of Rising’s lower leg injury in the 2023 Rose Bowl. After Saturday, it was apparent Utah would be in trouble if they were to play today.

Quarterback Nate Johnson competes for the Utes' backup quarterback job as spring practice continues.

Brandon Rose, whom Kyle Whittingham himself has acknowledged is ahead of the pack, struggled to make decisions and be accurate with the football as the defense amped up the aggression and energy on Saturday. In fact, none of the signal callers fared very well. Errant passes and casual mistakes like fumbled snap exchanges and botched handoffs stood out more than the few big runs and a one-handed catch from Luca Caldarella that would have earned a Sportscenter Top 10 nominee had there been a game.

Utah’s offense is based on execution and solid decision-making, and both were sloppy on a day the offense looked sluggish compared with the defensive side of the ball.

Discord In The Trenches

Losing two starters from the offensive line shouldn’t devastate what was a reliable unit in 2022, but it was clear there is a battle being fought between the big boys in the trenches on both sides of the ball.

(Utah Athletics) Veteran Keaton Bills will help anchor the Utes' offensive line in 2023.

Sataoa Laumea worked primarily on the left side, and as Utah’s most experienced starter it would take a Herculean effort from any of the potential backups to dethrone him. Keaton Bills and Michael Mokofisi are fine as the guards on either side, but both will need to be more mindful of whoever ends up playing the center position come fall.

Jaren Kump was adequate but learning to play with one hand while properly executing a snap takes time, and his running mates had their hands full with a feisty front four that saw Keanu Tanuvasa and Tevita Fotu make life difficult in addition to known commodities Junior Tafuna and Aliki Vimahi.

(Utah Athletics) Utah's Junior Tafuna competes in spring practice.

Utah didn’t blitz a ton, but was effective in getting pressure with a mixture of players, including Chase Kennedy finding his way into the backfield often along with Jonah Elliss and the aforementioned interior defensive linemen.

Logan Fano is another in a long line of versatile defenders on the edge, where he was effective in getting pressure against a combo of offensive linemen, including Falcon Kaumatule, recently returned missionary Solatoa Moeai and newcomer Spencer Fano. Logan Fano also saw a few plays dropping into coverage, showcasing the athletic versatility Utah covets with edge players.

In short, the defensive line made life difficult on offense in almost every phase of the game, save interior runs, which begs another question.

Personnel Packages Present a Paradox

Positional flexibility has been at the core of Utah’s ability to establish a credible offensive component to complement the staunch defenses that have highlighted the Whittingham era. Players like Brant Kuithe, Dalton Kincaid and Cole Fotheringham have made life easier with their ability to play inline or out wide on the line of scrimmage while also moving into the backfield to help Utah create advantages across the field while staying in the same personnel packages.

Utah was at its best in the run game on Saturday with “heavy” formation sets, meaning more tight ends than wide receivers or running backs and while the tandem of Miki Suguturaga and Thomas Yassmin provides a physical run game component, it lacks the versatility of the group in years past in the passing game.

Heavy personnel packages can be a good thing, most modern defenses are built to defend multiple receiver sets, and adding an extra linebacker instead of a nickel to defend the run can potentially expose teams in the passing attack to allow explosive plays. Explosive plays, or plays with gains over 15 yards are critical in college football, and Utah in particular lacked the kind of big play ability in 2022 that became a hallmark of the 2021 championship season.

It’s not likely that either Suguturaga or Yassmin can become the Swiss army knives that previous Utah tight ends have been before the end of the spring period, and as such Utah is trying to find a mix of personnel groupings that can utilize the physical presence they need in the run game with athletes who can, for lack of a better term, blow the lid off a defense.

It’s why so much attention has been paid to the wide receiver group, and Saturday didn’t provide many answers, unfortunately. It may be that Utah is stuck in development mode until Brant Kuithe can return to the field after sitting out most of 2022 with an injury.

Speaking of development …

Depth and Development at the Forefront

Utah scrimmaged for almost two hours, working in periods of individualized special teams development between game situational scrimmage periods. That’s a lot of work for a team that returns the majority of its starters on defense and a third-year starting QB once Rising is healthy.

Whittingham could teach PhD level courses on hard work and how his program uses it as a pillar, and there is a clear purpose to the heavy work that Utah put in on Saturday. The program has talent and experience returning but needs development in the lower two-thirds of the roster if they have any chance of repeating as Pac-12 champions.

Newcomer Miles Battle took a heavy amount of snaps at the corner position in an effort to get him up to speed and Battle might be a true diamond in the rough, or more accurately the transfer portal with his 6-foot-4 frame and SEC athleticism.

If Battle and others can learn the defense full speed in the spring, that adds a dimension to the secondary that could allow defensive Morgan Scalley to be more creative in his defensive schemes earlier in the season. We saw how Scalley can think outside the box when he stymied USC for a second time in the Pac-12 championship game, in recent years the lack of experience has pressed Utah to play more simplistic versions of their playbook on both the offensive and defensive side of the ball.

It’s one thing to know the playbook sitting in the classroom, but when bodies go live and everything blurs at full speed, if players aren’t assignment sound it shows up like a pimple on the forehead on Prom night. Players like Battle, Elijah Davis, Logan Fano, Sione Vaki, and Bleu Stewart showed the kind of consistency to earn the trust of Scalley, Utah will need it to continue when it faces off against Florida and Baylor to start the 2023 season.

The Genius of Andy Ludwig

Utah fending off Notre Dame to retain Ludwig was paraded as a massive win for the program and rightfully so. Ludwig often mentions repetitive accuracy as one of the primary traits he focuses on when analyzing the play of his quarterbacks, and Ludwig has dialed his own system in to reflect the trait. Rarely was Utah in a bad position because of play calls, in fact, it felt like the system was stronger than the play of the players for the majority of the day offensively. Dropped balls, indecision at the QB spot, hesitation on the offensive line, and miscommunications plagued the offense, and while they were still able to string together a few highlight plays, it was clear the offense scuffled.

Ludwig puts his players in the correct position to make plays via execution within the system instead of forcing them to rely on sheer athleticism or popcorn play calls that may fool a defense for a play or two but won’t consistently challenge defenders to think on every play the way Ludwig does.

We’ve seen players who grasp the execution angle as being the most important become stars in Rising, Kincaid, Kuithe, and Covey. The next step for Ludwig’s genius to really shine in 2023 will be getting players like Money Parks, Thomas Yassmin, Ja’Quinden Jackson, and others to buy into the execution aspect of the offense. Offensive line coach Jim Harding faces a similar challenge with the depth of his group and will also need to find a leader to replace Braeden Daniels, whose presence in the room spoke more loudly than any voice ever did.

(Hunter Dyke | Utah Athletics) Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig patrols the sidelines during 2023 Utah football spring practice.

It would be unfair to be critical of the offense’s sputtering performance on Saturday without acknowledging that Rising has become the kind of engine that covers a lot of warts, and Utah has the luxury of returning talent like Micah Bernard, Devaughn Vele, Kuithe, and Chris Curry to provide the rubber to Rising’s all gas efforts.

However, execution is an element that lies predominantly at the feet of the player, and in the era of NIL, players no longer can claim amateurism as a shield from criticism. Utah’s spring offensive group needs leaders to step up, and it will need it fast if the offense is to make any progress sans Rising and Co in an effort to push the team further than the past two Rose Bowl losses.

Only two weeks remain in the spring practice period, plenty of time to fill up the passion buckets and get to work. Soaking up the genius of Andy Ludwig like the sunshine cascading over Rice-Eccles warms even the coldest of football hearts. Just ask Notre Dame.