There’s a ton of noise happening in Pac-12 football right now, with USC and UCLA set to depart after one final season, and the specter of dramatic conference realignment hanging over everything.
The University of Utah coaching staff can’t let that be their primary concern right now, especially with fall camp beginning Monday.
The coordinators and positional coaches stopped by the Spence and Cleone Eccles Football Center to discuss the start of camp, and how the positions they oversee are looking.
With the Utes coming off back-to-back conference titles and Rose Bowl appearances, there’s a lot to like, of course. But there are also a ton of questions, specifically at a few key positions.
Here’s a breakdown of some of the noteworthy stuff from Day 1.
Quarterback • Cam Rising is working his way back from an ACL injury, and his Week 1 status is up in the air. Offensive coordinator/QBs coach Andy Ludwig mentioned that Rising “will be very limited here this first week.” He is cleared to move and throw and drop back, but the Utes will limit his involvement in “team-type of plays where he has to have sudden reactions.”
As for the options beyond Rising, Ludwig added that while everyone’s anxious to get things sorted out and solidified, he’s not worried about setting a depth chart on Day 1 of the first week. He did concede that he’ll definitely be looking for ways to get redshirt freshman Nate Johnson onto the field, though a position change isn’t happening.
Tight end • With Dalton Kincaid selected in the first round of the NFL draft, the Utes will be hoping to get a ton out of Brant Kuithe, another star coming off a knee injury.
Tight ends coach Freddie Whittingham said that Kuithe would be good to go Monday, though the team would probably try to limit his reps a bit just to keep him from overdoing it on Day 1, as is his nature.
Head coach Kyle Whittingham later clarified after practice that Kuithe “is not cleared yet by any means, as far as [being] 100%.”
Beyond Kuithe, Freddie Whittingham believes he’s got a group with good “route-running and ball skills.” Landen King and Thomas Yassmin got mentions, and Noah Bennee — who made the transition from receiver to tight end — came up twice.
While the position is a solid one, Freddie Whittingham explained that the gameplan will need to evolve in some ways this season, given the differences with the group.
“The blueprint from last year and the year before can’t be the exact blueprint this year,” he said. “We’ve gotta have some new wrinkles and take advantage of what guys do well, and coach the scheme to your personnel. But I do expect that the group as a whole will still have a major impact on the offense.”
Running back • Ja’Quinden Jackson is the headliner, but coach Quinton Ganther had a really telling line about what he’s looking for in the group as a whole.
“I’m looking to establish a--holes — that’s what I want to coach. I want to coach a--holes,” Ganther said. “I want to coach guys that want to be great, I want to coach guys who want to dominate the one-on-one battles. That’s I’m looking forward to doing right now, starting Day 1.”
Wide receiver • There are a ton of questions about the group as a collective unit, but coach Alvis Whitted has zero questions about Devaughn Vele, who’s back for a fifth year and who was Utah’s second-leading receiver in 2022 with 695 yards and five touchdowns.
“I like to think of him as the standard, because he doesn’t say much, but he works his butt off, he’s sharp, he studies the game, he wants to get better,” said Whitted. “He’s very intentional about everything he does. Again, he doesn’t say much, but his work speaks volumes, and that’s what I’m excited about.”
Coordinator Morgan Scalley is feeling some urgency for his unit to hit the ground running. Spring ball is the time for experimentation, he noted, but fall camp is for getting tuned-up for the season opener.
“This should not be a ‘Day 1, Day 2, get a feel for things’ [situation] — we’ve got to go,” said Scalley.
He said the clock is ticking because he believes Pac-12 offenses have never been as collectively talented as they’ll be this season.
Defensive line • Scalley said that defensive end may be the strength of the defense, but while he likes the D-tackle group generally, he also feels the Utes might be a little thin there.
Luther Elliss doesn’t necessarily agree on that latter point.
Still, he conceded that none of the jobs are 100% settled right now.
”We have an idea of the guys who could possibly start, but the reality is that it is open,” said Elliss. “We have a roomful [of guys] who are going to have an opportunity to earn that starting role.”
The nominal starters for the moment are Junior Tafuna — “He’s kind of our top dog right now” — and Simote Pepa, who became a starter towards the end of ’22. Elliss also name-dropped Keanu Tanuvasa, Aliki Vimahi, and Tevita Fotu, the latter of who he called “probably one of the most talented guys in the room.”
Linebacker • Coach Colton Swan raved about his group, saying, “The positional depth is really good, maybe the some of the best depth I’ve had since I’ve been here in my five years.”
While the D-line and DBs will get more headlines, perhaps, the LBs will be a focal point yet of the unit. Swan thinks the group’s forte is its experience.
“You’re returning two guys from last year’s team that have a number of plays’ experience, [plus] you’re adding a guy like Levani Damuni, who is bringing in a lot of production from Stanford, you’re bringing back Sione Fotu as a returned missionary, who was a starter in the COVID year, in 2020,” said Swan.
He also mentioned Hayden Furey, Justin Medlock (who redshirted as a freshman last year) as having great upside, and said a young guy to watch is Owen Chambliss.
Secondary • This is where the Utes have perhaps the most questions.
But Scalley also believes there’s enough talent that there should be good answers all the way around.
He said he’s “excited probably most for the competition with the defensive backs, the outside corner,” while adding that he believes the team is stocked at the nickel.
As for safety, Nate Ritchie could be an option. Ritchie started all five games of the COVID-shortened 2020 season at free safety, then spent two years on a religious mission, and re-enrolled in school this January, but didn’t participate in spring ball, owing to an injury.
“Ready to go, no issues,” Scalley replied when asked for an update on Ritchie’s status.
As for the safety battle in general, the coordinator said the criteria will be just like any other positional battle.
“They understand that you compete and there are four things we’re looking for: No. 1, no off-the-field issues; No. 2, know the defense; No. 3, make plays; No. 4, contribute on special teams. The best you can do that, those guys will end up playing.”