Mounting injuries have Utah football concerned with UCLA up next

Beyond Cam Rising and Brant Kuithe, the Utes have health issues on the defensive line, in the secondary, and in the wide receivers room among other places.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes cornerback JaTravis Broughton (4) makes a tackle against the Florida Gators, at Rice-Eccles Stadium, on Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023. Broughton at out last week's game against Weber State.

As the No. 11-ranked Utah football team prepares to open Pac-12 Conference play by hosting No. 22 UCLA this Saturday, Utes coach Kyle Whittingham is concerned.

“We’ve got to get healthy — we have 15 or 16 guys that can help us win that are not available,” he said after Saturday’s 31-7 win over Weber State. “… Getting our starting [defensive] tackles back, Connor O’Toole back — JT Broughton didn’t play today. We’ve got to get all our guys intact. That’s what we’re hoping for this week, is to get a good chunk of those guys that are missing back. That’s the most important thing that could happen to make us better.”

Utah was without myriad starters in that game, and several backups, as well.

Meanwhile, the coach noted that the Utes had lost several more players to injury over the course of the matchup vs. the Wildcats, and suggested that several of them might miss the coming matchup with the Bruins.

While UCLA coach Chip Kelly seemed to suggest the injury issue was perhaps overblown — “They’re all really good players; if one guy’s down it’s not like there’s a huge dropoff” — there is some legitimate trepidation on Whittingham’s part now about the sheer number of players who’ve missed time.

“Hopefully this week we can get some of them back. As we sit here right now, I can’t say for certain on any of them. That’s where we are,” Whittingham said during Monday’s media availability. “We lost another two, three, maybe four guys in the last game that will be questionable this week. It’s been really crazy the way that has played out.”

Some of those players’ injury statuses are well-documented. Others, however, are shrouded in secrecy, with the program not compelled to provide individual injury updates.

That said, here’s what we know (or don’t) about some of the most significant recent absences.

Cam Rising • Will he or won’t he play? The Utes have been teasing the quarterback’s return from an ACL injury since the start of fall camp, even noting after the opener vs. Florida that he’s been cleared to practice fully.

After alternating between Bryson Barnes and Nate Johnson in the first two games, the Utes rolled exclusively with Johnson on Saturday. And while he had some big moments, both he and his coach acknowledged afterward that there were definitely more plays to be made and more points to be scored. Rising’s return would presumably give the Utes’ offense a jolt.

“I’ve got a ton of respect for Cam Rising. I think he’s an amazing competitor. He’s been one of the top quarterbacks, not only in this league but in the country, for a long time,” said UCLA coach Chip Kelly. “I’m sure Kyle is always making his decisions based on health and safety.

“… I think he’s an unbelievable competitor and a great football player,” Kelly added. “I think if they declare him ready to go, then we expect the full version of Cam Rising.”

Brant Kuithe • After tight ends coach Freddie Whittingham suggested on the opening day of fall camp that Kuithe might be good to go right then and there, his continued absence as a result of his own ACL injury has been something of a mystery.

That said, the star tight end noted last week in an interview with ESPN 700′s Bill Riley that while he wasn’t going to provide a specific timeline, he felt like he was “close” to a return.

Johnny Maea • After appearing in seven games last season and starting two of them, the senior was projected as the Utes’ starting center for 2023, but has yet to play due to an undisclosed injury. Jaren Kump, listed as the team’s second-string right guard, has filled in at center and has performed well enough that Whittingham said Kump and Maea will compete for the starting job once the latter returns.

Connor O’Toole • After appearing in all 14 games last season and starting five, and finishing with 41 tackles, four tackles for loss, and 1.5 sacks, there were big expectations for the Albuquerque native this season, though he has yet to appear in a game. Whittingham said a week or two ago that he hoped to have O’Toole back in a week or two, so perhaps he’s close. His teammates expect him to make a big difference once he’s back.

“As defensive ends, we’ve put together three really good games, and we don’t even have Connor — who I’ll say is our best D-end, he’s a baller,” Logan Fano said Saturday. “… We’ll get Connor back, which will amplify everything else.”

JaTravis Broughton • After playing in all 14 games last season, including 11 starts, the cornerback had started the first two games of this season before sitting out vs. Weber State. He leads the cornerback room with nine tackles (1.0 TFL), and also has one pass breakup. Miles Battle, who had an egregious mistake against Baylor, started vs. Weber and was solid.

Junior Tafuna • Considered arguably Utah’s best overall defensive lineman, the tackle missed the Florida game, then played vs. Baylor, then was out again against Weber. The former Bingham High star started 11 games in 2021, then all 14 games in 2022. Last season, he totaled 27 tackles (3.5 TFL, 1.0 sack), one interception, two QB hurries, and a pass breakup. His top backup, Simote Pepa, has missed all three games thus far.

Devaughn Vele • The Utes’ top returning wideout, Vele got off to a bit of a slow start in the first two games, totaling a combined four catches for 51 yards vs. Florida and Baylor. Then he was out Saturday in the matchup with the Wildcats.

Mycah Pittman • The wide receivers group was further depleted Saturday with the absence of the Florida State/Oregon transfer. Pittman was widely expected to give the WR room a boost this season, but his production has also been limited. In the Florida and Baylor games combined, he had three receptions for 20 yards, one carry for minus-2 yards, and five punt returns for 33 yards.

Cole Becker • The Colorado transfer handled all the field goals, PATs, and kickoffs vs. the Gators and Bears, but was absent against the Wildcats. He is 3 of 4 on field goals and 5 of 5 on PATs this season, and has four touchbacks among 10 kickoffs. Against Weber State, Joey Cheek made a 37-yard field goal and was 4 of 4 on PATs, while Chase Carter handled the kickoffs (just one touchback in six attempts).

Munir McClain • After not registering a catch against either Florida or Baylor, the junior made a huge impact early against Weber State, forming a connection with QB Nate Johnson that resulted in three catches for 92 yards. However, he was not made available for the players’ portion of the postgame media session, and was observed in a walking boot.