Utah football closes spring practice with 22 Forever Game

Brandon Rose is in control of QB2 battle, Ja’Quinden Jackson shows off his offseason, and more from Rice-Eccles Stadium

How much one should glean from a spring game is always a topic of discussion.

The entire playbook is not opened up, not everyone plays, 12-minute quarters instead of 15-minute quarters, a running clock for the second half, and on, and on the differences go between the spring and the fall.

This was the case with Saturday afternoon’s 22 Forever Game, which certainly had its moments of optimism, but should certainly be taken with a grain of salt.

Rose won the day

Brandon Rose, a redshirt freshman who ran the scout team in 2022, will exit spring practice in control of the QB2 competition vs. Bryson Barnes and Nate Johnson. While he struggled in the Utes’ first live spring scrimmage on April 8, Rose made the most of his final opportunity to show something on Saturday.

The Temecula, Calif., native looked confident and in control throughout for the White team, finishing 19-for-24 for 233 yards and a first-quarter touchdown to Money Parks. Rose did not have any moments that wowed anyone, and that’s fine, because he was solid. Whoever wins the backup job, that person doesn’t have to wow anyone, he has to just be solid, especially if Cam Rising is not ready for the opener and the backup ends up starting against Florida.

Rose’s first drive was really all anyone needed to see. Operating a behind a potential opening night offensive line of Falcon Kaumatule, Keith Olson, Kolinu’u Faaiu, Michael Mokofisi and Jaren Kump, Rose was 3-for-4 for 59 yards and a 26-yard touchdown to Parks down the left sideline after a terrible defensive miscommunication. Rose’s one miss on the drive was an airmailed ball to Parks, so there’s your nitpick.

Based on that drive alone, Rose was the clear winner of the spring game. Meanwhile, Barnes and Johnson combined to go just 6-for-10 for 73 yards for the Red team. Barnes added a 32-yard touchdown run in the first quarter on a third-and-8 keeper, while Johnson was intercepted on his first pass attempt.

For better or worse, Utah now has a firmer idea of what it has at quarterback behind Rising, although Johnson missed about two weeks with injury. The question now becomes whether or not coach Kyle Whittingham kicks the tires in the transfer portal looking for more QB help.

Rose may be in control of QB2, but that doesn’t mean you necessarily feel great about him starting a game right now.

Jackson showcases his offseason work

Ja’Quinden Jackson and whether or not he can be a reliable, every-week piece of Utah’s rushing attack has been a key offseason storyline. Remember, he went on a tear to end 2022, and is now exclusively working as a running back after converting from quarterback in late September.

I have had more questions about Jackson at running back than the average Utah fan, which is rooted in the fact that he simply doesn’t have a long resume at the position at this level. If Saturday was any indication, Jackson has put in the work, and there should be plenty of optimism going forward.

Jackson’s two noteworthy plays were both catches out of the backfield, a 22-yard catch-and-run from Rose, and another catch-and-run a short time later, this one for 30 yards. Remember that none of it came against the full first-team defense, but that hardly matters. Jackson made it look smooth and easy, and frankly, it may have come as a surprise because that stuff simply was not his repertoire last fall. He caught one pass in 2022, and it didn’t come until the Rose Bowl.

Based on this small sample size, if Jackson remains healthy and durable, you can see him touching the ball more than any other running back, even if he doesn’t have the hands of Micah Bernard or the shiftiness of Jaylon Glover. He’s 6-foot-2, 225 pounds, and he’s a load to bring down, as evidenced by one 9-yard run in the first quarter in which he went off right end, and dragged two or three would-be tacklers with him.

A lot of guys sat, as expected

The spring game at Utah is not for the coaches and the players, but rather the fans as a reminder that college football is a thing and the Utes will be doing it for real in four months.

That said, there have been plenty of instances through the years where Utah will get to the spring game, which represents the 15th and final practice, and Whittingham, armed with a veteran team full of known commodities, will simply decide to sit a majority of, if not all the guys that matter.

Saturday was no different. Some of it was injury-related, some of it was precaution, but the point is, a lot of players you’re going to see play at Rice-Eccles on Aug. 31 against Florida did not play on Saturday.

A quick, potentially incomplete list of projected two-deep guys who did not play: Keaton Bills, Brant Kuithe, Devaughn Vele, Jonah Elliss, Van Fillinger, Junior Tafuna, Simote Pepa, Lander Barton, Karene Reid, Cole Bishop, Sione Vaki, Zemaiah Vaughn, JT Broughton, Fabian Marks, Tao Johnson, Sataoa Laumea, Johnny Maea, Cam Rising, Chris Curry, Logan Fano, Nate Ritchie.

Kuithe, Rising, Curry, and Ritchie were out for the entirety of spring and were not slated to play Saturday anyway, but you get the point.

Whittingham will not say it out loud in so many words, but at this time of year, he is largely about preserving the health of the guys he needs at this time of year. Mission accomplished as Utah will exit spring practice without any new, significant injuries.

“Through 13 practices, we feel good about the health of our football team,” Utes offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig said on Wednesday. “We know the guys that are injured who missed spring ball plan on being back and ready, but to this date, we have remained healthy.

“In the scrimmages, the 1s have not been live. The 2s have gotten some live work. A player like Keaton Bills, Sataoa Laumea, how many live reps do those guys need? They’ve played now forever it seems like, so you’ll see some guys scaled back in the spring game as well to try and curtail any opportunities for mishaps. To date, it’s been a blessing to not lose anybody.”

Other things on my mind

• Colorado transfer Cole Becker hit a 46-yard field goal to end the first half. Don’t underrate that fact given what Utah’s kicking situation has been for the past two seasons.

• Whittingham, Morgan Scalley, and Colton Swan have all pumped up redshirt freshman linebacker Justin Medlock this spring. Eleven tackles, six solo, and a fumble recovery on Saturday. I don’t know if he will start the opener, but he’s going to play. That much appears clear.

• The Rice-Eccles video board played a “commercial” for the Crimson Collective before the game started. It is a new day around here with a new set of rules.

• It’s tough to see Ole Miss transfer Miles Battle not starting outside at one cornerback spot. He has looked increasingly comfortable this spring in man schemes after playing his entire career in mostly zone sets. His 44-yard interception return for a touchdown in the fourth quarter came at the expense of Mack Howard after he jumped a route. The Utes are not terribly deep at CB, but the top of that depth chart is very good between Battle, JT Broughton, and Zemaiah Vaughn. Faybian Marks has experience, and Scalley has been high on Elijah Davis and Tao Johnson as well.

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